There’s little that would tempt me into Temple Bar on a Saturday night. As charming as the cobbled streets are, the thought of mobs of tourists and leering stag parties tend to steer me away from the area; bar a couple of exceptions, of which Chameleon restaurant is one.
So, once again I found myself as the sun set over the city centre, in the thick of the action among the revelers. Side stepping a few mid-street selfie-taking tourists I slipped off the main thoroughfare, onto Lower Fownes Street and into Chameleon – settled in the same spot since chef and proprietor Kevin O’Toole opened the doors twenty-three years ago.
Getting an insight into the minute kitchen as we make our way up the cramped winding stairs, turning the corner the beautifully bohemian main dining room revealed itself; sumptuously designed in the theme of a Balinese villa, or, for another cultural parallel, an elaborately decorated Moroccan tent – either way, this feels like you are thousands of miles away from the bustling and boisterous streets of Temple Bar.
Any available space on the deep purple walls are covered with Javanese ornamental wooden carvings, and elsewhere someone deemed that entire floor to ceiling mirrored walls fringed with fairy lights weren’t enough, and layered them with gilded mirrors for an extra bling factor; added to the chandeliers that hang wherever there is a unadorned corner it ultimately gives the feeling of being inside a giant mirror-ball.
I was particularly looking forward to this visit; not alone for the Indonesian food which impressed me in the past, or the company of a friend who I hadn’t met for a couple of weeks, but as this time I had requested to be seated at the low table edged with deep couch style seating. Piled with cushions in various rich reds and purples, shapes and sizes, this is unique feature that has long attracted my attention, but never suited my dress or skirt outfit choice.
Our server Anina invites us to make ourselves comfortable; take our shoes off; sit cross-legged; whatever works for us. She lights the hot plates before us and explains in a well-practiced verse the menu; which allow you to choose from a number of Indonesian Rijst-Tafel, or ‘Rice Table’, set menus (perfect for groups), or from a selection of Asian tapas and Chameleon’s speciality steamed buns.
Of the three Rijst-Tafels options we choose the Vegetarian (€30pp) and Sumatra (seafood) (€40pp); the third choice, Java (€35pp), combines both fish and meat, and not long after the table before us is decorated in a colourful array of curries, fish dishes, salads, pickles and more that fill the air with the fragrant aromatics of ‘The Spice Islands’.
Two types of bone-white, pillowy soft Steamed Buns, which we are advised to eat first, come stuffed with a delectably crispy tofu in panko breadcrumbs, and lightly tempura battered king prawns. Almost like an oriental, grown-up take on a fish finger sandwich, instead of basic tomato ketchup each pocket of steamy goodness is layered with sweet mango and chilli jam, pickled chillies and scallions.
Diving into the seafood plate, sublimely tender Poached Prawns are elegantly topped with a jammy spiced dressing cut with apple cider vinegar, and a dainty Parcel of Fish, Ikan Bakar Colo Colo, slathered in an aromatic spice paste takes on the delicate essence of the banana leaf it is wrapped and baked in.
It’s the golf ball sized Otak Otak Pipe, a Crab Cake with haddock in a panko crumb, that impresses us most; tasting entirely of the seafood itself, not at all cut with potato as they tend to be, and zinging with fresh coriander.
Of the Vegetarian plate, similar in shape and size to the fish cake it’s the flavoursome Potato and Chickpea Fritter, Perkedel, that we fight for the larger half of – both swooning over the creamy pickled aubergine mayonnaise it’s smothered in.
Chunks of vegetables are bound in a sunny yellow Balinese Curry coconut sauce that is mild but spiced with black pepper, nutmeg, lemongrass and galangal – the pops of whole roasted peanuts are a welcome surprise.
Both Rijst-Tafel come with the same sides, so these are served in larger portions. Along with an Asinan Salad, julienned cucumber and mango with chinese leaves doused in a black sesame dressing that’s thick with nuggets of toasted peanuts, there’s crisp Sesame Fried Seasonal Greens, salty, slippery Wok-fried Noodles, Bami Goreng, that mingle with crunchy beansprouts, and a fragrant yellow-hued Galangal Spiced Rice.
At Chameleon, initially, when the array of dishes arrive it can seem intimidatingly indulgent, but once you begin to taste the numerous small portions nothing overpowers or overwhelms.
Instead, the dishes across the set menus complement each other, and the condiments at hand allow you adjust them to your liking: sambal to take the heat up another level; atjar pickle to add sourness and cleanse the palate; kepap manis (sweet soy sauce) for sweetness and to mitigate heat.
The crisp finish of the Gruner Veltliner (€7.50 a glass), a go-to wine for south-east Asian food, couples perfectly with the vibrant flavours. Added to the sets menus, the two glasses we order brought the total to €85.
Chameleon is as bold, exotic and unique as it was in 1994. Still hanging onto its nineties roots, the restaurant has its quirks and kinks, but these only add to its character and the personality that the restaurant exudes.
It manages not to be at all too themed, instead making you feel like you are dining in the relaxed surrounds of someone’s much-loved home – albeit one located in a far-flung corner of the world; that’s hosting a lively party; with a culinary gifted owner who has spent a few days preparing a sumptuous feast. This is one house party I look forward to crashing again and again.
1 Lower Fownes Street,
T: +353 (0)1 6710362
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.