Restaurant review: This Chameleon changes for the better

The Chameleon seems to slither on and off of people's radar. For one thing, folks confuse it with Clementine, just a mile to the north. And while Chameleon doesn't actively shun publicity, it does tend to keep quieter than some of the other restaurants working with the same materials — the local, responsible and seasonally changing.

Recently, the restaurant has been nudging itself toward the spotlight. For starters, it's changed its name — no longer the Chameleon Cafe, it's simply the Chameleon. The dining room has been repainted. Now a somber misty green color, it had been orange — very, very orange — which gave it a kindergarten-ish look that belied the quality of the food served in it. There are new sconces, and freshly hung artwork, too. It's a much better space now, more soothing, more elegant, a more appropriate canvas for the sophisticated yet humble, beautifully but simply presented and thoroughly delicious food prepared by Jeff Smith's kitchen.

Along with this new sophistication comes an expanded list of imported beers, a better-organized wine list and a smashing new cocktail menu — at least it's new to me. These days, you can reliably judge a restaurant by its specialty cocktails; as a rule, the less fruity the cocktails, the better the food is going to be. Chameleon's cocktails are composed of the bitter, the sour and the aromatic. Recommended: the Root Down, with Art in the Age liqueur, rye, sweet vermouth and bitters.

Right now is a great time to go back, or to visit the Chameleon for the first time. The summer menu has just returned, and not a moment too soon for some of the restaurant's most ardent fans, who start clamoring for it on the official first day of summer, and, I remember Smith telling me, not always so patiently.

Back again are the chicken Maryland, pan-fried and served with a horseradish cream sauce with lardons, johnnycakes and fried bananas. Baltimore, Smith knew, was long a major port of entry for bananas into the United States — but this is no trivial chicken. It's crispy-skinned, liberally seasoned and juicy. It's sold as an entree and as one of four offerings in a new menu section called "the Other Cut," kind of a prep school for entrees, or a graduate course for appetizers.

The fried-green tomatoes are back, too. If you've grown indifferent to menu information about sourcing, these might win you back. The firm tomatoes are from George's, just up the road; the mellow goat cheese is from Cherry Glen Farm in Montgomery County, and the smoked bacon and basil are from nearby Truck Patch Farms. None of this dedication would matter if the breading wasn't so tasty and the tomatoes weren't fried so nicely.

The cantaloupe and crab salad is also back. Deceptively simple, a smartly applied lemon vinaigrette keeps the melon's sweetness in check and red onions and red peppers add visual interest and texture.

A chunky aspic, paired with vinegared cucumber and chilled shrimp and marinated crab, is intended as a tribute to the classic luncheon preparation at the old Woman's Industrial Exchange. The Chameleon's aspic is earnest, respectful of its ingredients, but artifice has its place — I missed the intense ketchupy tomato-ness of the old lunchroom's version.

Everything else, from the midsize plates to the bona fide entrees, was pure pleasure, all of it composed thoughtfully, plated imaginatively and seared, grilled and baked precisely. Everything is recommended highly, and I'd hate for you to miss out on any of them.

You will want, absolutely, the chicken Maryland, and definitely, the tender and robustly flavored pan-fried country-style rib served with buttered potatoes and herbed mayonnaise.

And you shouldn't do without the pork entree, tour-de-pig featuring Truck Patch Farms pork loin, luscious pork belly and Krakos sausage, served with tender peas and new potatoes. Rockfish is so often mishandled, I've grown wary of ordering it, but it's a sure bet at Chameleon. Pan-seared and served with sauteed cucumbers and crab spaetzle, it had the wild and stream-y flavor that we love it for.

But if you could only have one thing at Chameleon, or at any restaurant this week, it should be the lip-smacking baked mackerel, served atop a savory zucchini cake, and dressed with a lemon mayonnaise. This is an old recipe, we were told, of the chef's mother.

For a final course, there is full coffee service and a small choice of homemade desserts, such as a cloud-light blueberry buttermilk tart or a tooth-aching chocolate pie. They're delicious, and either one of them would make opting into the Chameleon's $33 three-course weeknight menu the easiest decision you might make all summer.

The Chameleon

Where: 4341 Harford Road, Lauraville

Contact: 410-254-2376,

Hours: Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday

Prices: Appetizers, $-$ Entrees, $-$

Food: ✭✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭

[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭]

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