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Editorial Review

Good karma found at this Chameleon
Baltimore restaurant turns 10
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011

Jeff Smith was a 25-year-old line cook in his native Baltimore when he and his wife, Brenda, a freshly minted art teacher, hopped in their car and headed to New Orleans in 1998 with $1,000 between them. Neither job nor home awaited them at the end of the road, only the prospect of adventure.

The journey, which included a stint for Smith at Emeril's New Orleans, taught him a lesson: "Everybody in New Orleans was so proud of their cuisine" and mindful of regional tradition, the chef recalls. He vowed that if he ever went back home, he would promote the cooking he was raised on.

Sure enough, shortly after Smith returned to Charm City two years later, he found a cheap building in Lauraville, a "neighborhood that was a mess," and opened Chameleon Cafe with a menu that eventually included dishes his mother had fed him: bluefish with lemon mayonnaise, and smearcase, a hometown riff on cheesecake.

Initially, his business in northeastern Baltimore served three meals a day. When Smith realized he wasn't happy working 16-hour days, he dropped coffee service, then lunch. But the chef retained his commitment at dinner to buying ingredients from local purveyors - some of them his relatives - at a time when the mantra of the American chef was still "fresh and seasonal" rather than "some of our best friends are farmers."

Your server is likely to brag on her boss. "We jumped on the bandwagon a long time ago," says the young waitress on my initial visit to the restaurant that now simply goes by Chameleon. "We're a bit fanatical. Some of our sources are urban farms right down here on Harford," she says, pointing to the street outside. Chameleon buys its coffee from Zeke's, the pedigreed local roaster next door.

A welcome break from the field of small plates out there is a menu category at Chameleon called the Other Cut. The handful of dishes work as either (you decide) big appetizers or small entrees and are priced accordingly, between $12 and $14. The server heaps special praise on Chameleon's gateau de viande, which turns out to be a fancy way to say meatloaf. Our tattoo-decorated color commentator introduces the dish - rich with pork liver, ground beef and local eggs - as "bubbling goodness," and I'm pleased to make contact. The streamlined feast, sauced with ham hock gravy, comes with potato wedges and gherkins sprouting out of spicy mustard.

With its 10th anniversary as an impetus, Chameleon has added the restaurant fashion accessory of the past few years - a swell cocktail list - and covered its original orange walls with a fresh coat of soft gray paint. The dimly lit dining room won't be confused with anything playing in trendy Fells Point, however; a window table captures a sweeping view of the Safeway next door. "No tourist would come here," a son of Baltimore tells me over dinner.

Their loss. While one night's plain pumpkin soup tastes as if it were meant for a commune (the promised Madeira escapes my taste buds) and a serving of spinach was insufficiently wrung of cooking water, more of the food is, as the aforementioned server put it, "freakin' delicious."

The menu changes like Kim Kardashian's outfits. If you're lucky, Smith will have made rillettes. The chef buys whole hogs, breaks them down and turns the slow-cooked meat and its fat into slabs of pink porcine pleasure, bordered on top with pure lard and meant to be slathered on bread. Fried oysters are another first course to seek out. The seafood arrives in a light cornmeal crust and is served on a nest of spinach tinged with the anise-flavored spirit known as Herbsaint: unfussy food, thoughtfully executed.

You don't see steak Diane on menus very often; well-seasoned tournedos invigorated with a sauce of mustard and Madeira make you wonder why. The entree, which Smith calls an homage to the late Danny's restaurant in Baltimore, is among the choices on Chameleon's three-course fixed-price menu for $33. The catch? It's offered only midweek.

The season encourages choucroute garni, and I urge you to order the strapping platter here, arranged with a pork loin chop, zesty house-made garlic sausage, ham hock and carrots and potatoes. The break-out star of the show is its cabbage, picked that day from nearby, fermented with salt and bold spices, and transformed into a lightly crisp and winy mound of shreds that is so lush and true, it's as if you've never had sauerkraut before.

A diner doesn't have to pig out to enjoy Chameleon. Smith reveals his lighter side with a mellow butternut squash tart decorated with crisp slivered mushrooms and set on peppery greens. Another alternative to red meat: grilled quail displayed alongside green beans that snap when you bite into them and a potato gratin flecked with parsley and lovage from the chef's garden.

"Bernadette had time to make sour cream chocolate cake tonight," announces our server as she passes out dessert lists from Bernadette Jocson. With memories of the pastry chef's uber-moist chocolate cake layered with caramel and sprinkled with sea salt dancing in my head, I jump on a slice of the just-baked model, which is equally divine. There are orchards of apple tarts out there, but Jocson's takes the cake. Soft diced apples rise from a slip of pastry finished with a drift of whipped cream inset with a tiny fan of green apple slices. A friend and I start a game at the table. "Mine is best," says the fruit tart holder. "Mine is best," declares the chocolate aficionado. Plates are switched - and new sides are taken. When I pass the open kitchen on the way out and identify the pastry chef, I ask what her secret is. "I just taste a lot," she reveals.

"Don't be a stranger," a host says as we reluctantly head for the door, trailed by a chorus of "goodbyes" and "good nights" from the entire staff. Chameleon couldn't be more constant.