Refuel: Updating an institution
Spice Bar, Chameleon 1 Lower Fownes Street, Temple Bar, Dublin 2 HHHII
On those nights in Dublin when it gets dark at four, the raw east winds blow and rain smashes against the rooves, you ate lunch al desko, and all the drivers on the tarry wet roads engage in dirty driving tactics, and you don't even have Gore-Tex, at least there are restaurants. A restaurant can pick you up on these Dantean nights but the thing is it has to be perfect. It has to be taste fireworks, otherwise you'll wish you just stayed home.
I recently found such a place in, would you believe it, Temple Bar. Chameleon Restaurant 'since 1994' is the only Indonesian restaurant in Dublin. It's an institution, meaning it's either grown timeless or just old with time.
That night, my friends and I partook of rijst-tafle or 'rice table', a Dutch colonial dining custom of sharing various dishes from the ethnically diverse Spice Islands. We sat like caliphates on scarlet cushions around a low table, eating delicacies like fish wrapped in banana leaf and sesame fried cabbage. Fairy lights and candles lit the room and strange Gods hung on the walls. It felt burlesque and devious, with flavours new and transporting.
So when my oldest friend and I were choosing a spot on a recent miserable night we were definitely going straight back to Chameleon to try the new Spice Bar menu of 'Asian tapas'. It seemed evocative and far flung, yet snappy enough to leave room for possibility. Alas, it was not the mystical Eastern journey we were hoping for.
Spice Bar happens at a wooden bar or at the couply tables downstairs. Indonesian food is a beautiful collision of nuts, coconut milk and spices. It's not so much hot as aromatic, with Chinese, Muslim and Indian influences. They invented satay. Seafood is abundant and the ubiquitous dish is nasi goring, fried rice with a fried egg on top. That's not on this menu.
Small plates are €5-12 and it's tempting to order very many of them. The fried black tiger prawns in their shell (udang goring) were beautifully snackable, as were the perfectly crisped squid rings (cumi cumi goring).
Balinese yellow curry, claiming to be "full-flavoured", was meek and wanting. It was good with its courgette and green beans and whole pieces of corn from the cob but it felt like an airplane Balinese yellow curry. It needed meaty punch beside it so we had chosen kari Java, a Javanese curry of braised shoulder of Wicklow lamb and sweet potato. However tender the lamb, the taste was predominantly of meat stock. The spiced rice with galangal and garam masala saved it from being just Irish stew.
We were unmoved by the 'otak otak pipeh', a crab and haddock cake with spices in panko crumb; such a small disc, sans zing. Again unsharable was the Perkedel, potato and chickpeas crushed with vegetables and spices served with pickled aubergine mayonnaise; a snooker ball of a largely potato thing. The sweet potato spring roll was just fine.
For pudding, Sumatran coffee and cardamom panna cotta with caramel sauce and Broighter gold tuile was quickly devoured. I couldn't have told that the coffee was Sumatran and couldn't taste the cardamom which would have made it Asian rather than Italian.
Up the precipitous stairway was where all the fun seemed to be going on, all the glances traded, all the bottles of wine drunk. It's a better bet than Spice Bar, which was expensive and a comparative failure.
I put this down to lacklustre spicing, frugal portioning and an over-talkative menu that didn't quite walk the walk. Not to the comfortable setting and fine service. The staff at Chameleon are passionate and more than helpful. This just about made the horrid night outside easier to face again.
Typical dish: Satay
Recommended: Crispy marinated squid rings
The damage: €95 including tip, for eight dishes, two Asahi beers, two glasses of Touraine sauvignon blanc, one dessert and two fresh mint teas
On the stereo: U2 and other anthemisers
At the table: Internet dates or Trip advisors