For more than a decade, Lauraville’s The Chameleon justly inspired deep devotion from its patrons. The owners, Jeff and Brenda Smith, were farm-to-table advocates long before most Baltimoreans had heard the word “locavore,” and Chameleon was the first city restaurant I can remember where waiters lovingly recited not only the name and provenance of the locally sourced dishes, but passionate accounts of how they were prepared. So it will come as a relief to loyal fans that Chameleon’s transformation into Maggie’s Farm is a friendly takeover, not a coup, and that the farm-to-table ethos, as well as the intimate family vibe, are still very much on the menu.
New owner Andrew Weinzirl, formerly of The Wine Market, came on board last spring as Chameleon’s executive chef and officially launched Maggie’s in November. (Jeff Smith is still a financial partner.) Weinzirl is fashioning a menu he dubs “refined peasant cuisine,” perhaps slightly more rustic than Smith’s French-inspired preparations, but still firmly rooted in seasonal ingredients and fueled by a mission to educate and expose diners to the wealth of Maryland’s regional bounty. Some items are popular carryovers from Chameleon, like the swoon-worthy cornmeal-crusted oysters bathed in delectable Herbsaint with sautéed spinach.
Changes are more likes tweaks and variations than major statements. Tablecloths have been removed to create a more casual atmosphere. Even more than before, the effect is as if you were dining at the home of a friend who just happened to be a gastronomical whiz kid.
Other changes are also geared toward more casual, drop-in dining. The restaurant now offers four-course “family meals” on Monday nights, a bargain prix-fixe menu on Tuesdays, and a Sunday brunch. The wine menu is a model of moderate but interesting offerings, with many bottles in the $20-35 range. And a host of inventive cocktails now encourages lingering before and after dinner. (Try the Vespertine, a mix of gin, vodka, and Lillet, whose name refers to both Casino Royale’s Bond girl and an album by Björk.)
There are more small plates to choose from, so that an eminently affordable dinner can be made from the “snacks, apps, and bites” section. Choose some vegetables, like the crispy baby Brussels sprouts with guanciale and Concord grape saba or a lovely green salad with roasted beets and feta, and you can call it a meal by adding another substantial appetizer or two: griddled red pork belly with cabbage and lime slaw; goat cheese and sage gnocchi with cavelo nero and pumpkin; or the house-ground burger with bacon jam and fried egg from the entree menu.
And there’s still the excellent house-made charcuterie (another Chameleon specialty), a revolving selection of sausages, terrines, pâtés, and pig parts that, together with one of the kitchen’s beautifully composed salads, would make a perfectly satisfying meal. (Try the pigs’ ears or the trotters, which, for the squeamish, have been finely minced, formed into little patties, and deep fried in breadcrumbs. Hog heaven.)
A half dozen or so entrees change regularly according to the season. During a visit in late fall, the menu was laden with sides of root vegetables—sweetly fragrant caramelized cauliflower that graced a plate of pillowy seared scallops scattered with capers; batons of braised salsify surrounding a sturdy but melting hunk of roasted cod bathed in creamy white sauce. Giant platters of succulent grass-fed beef-cheek bourguignon over polenta and a massive piece of house-cured grilled pork—nicely charred and smoky—couldn’t have been more seasonably suitable. This is substantial food in big, American-style portions that nonetheless boasts noteworthy subtleties of flavor and texture.
Service, at least on our visit, was the only element of our experience that failed to match our memory of Chameleon’s heyday. Gone was the recitation of ingredients and preparations, and a backed-up kitchen elicited no special concern from our waitress, who notified us that our orders would arrive “shortly” (after a very long wait). Luckily, we were having too good a time to care, and the food more than made up for our wait.
And despite the fact that we cleaned our plates, we still made room for desserts, the best of which was a soul-warming sticky toffee pudding with warm cranberry sauce and sour cream semifreddo. If you’re not in the mood for sweet, there’s a selection of fine domestic farmstead cheeses (many local, of course) to nosh on while you while away the end of the meal, and to accompany your Vespertini as you toast both the old Chameleon and the new Maggie’s Farm.