Restaurant review: 'Instagram made me come here, and I'm kicking myself it took me so long'
Asian tapas prove a delight at this vibrant, city centre gem
1 Lower Fownes Street, Temple Bar, Dublin 2. (01) 671 0362, chameleonrestaurant.com
I have no excuse for taking 25 years to visit Chameleon in Temple Bar, but I finally made it last week and am kicking myself for not getting it together before now. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
In the end, it was Instagram that made me do it, proving yet again the power of social media in the food world. The restaurant put up a photo of its new exterior paint job - a vibrant turquoise blue that would brighten up the rainiest, greyest day in Dublin - and I knew that what I most wanted to eat that weekend was vibrant Asian food.
Chameleon has been in business since 1994; no mean achievement in the capital. Carol Walsh originally operated a dance studio from the first floor (hence the mirrors on the walls) and opened a vegetarian café, The Cellary, on the ground floor. As this grew in popularity, the café took over the first-floor space too, but had to shut down for a period due to building works in the area. Carol took the opportunity to go travelling in Asia, and when she came back, hired a Dutch-Indonesian chef and replaced the café with Chameleon, serving a traditional Indonesian rijsttafel.
Fast forward a few years, and Carol's now-partner, Kevin O'Toole, came to work front of house at Chameleon. Kevin says that he had always been interested in food and cooked a lot at home, but hadn't trained formally. So when he took over the kitchen he enrolled in IT Tallaght, "ate books", and set about evolving the food offering at Chameleon.
Over the years, the couple have travelled to Indonesia often, but Kevin stresses that the food at Chameleon does not aim for authenticity. "That's just copying," he says. "What I'm trying to do is make it better, to produce dishes that appeal more to our clientèle, by using different cuts and cooking methods."
Part of O'Toole's approach is to use Irish fish and free-range chicken thigh meat, and the recent re-vamp of the exterior took away the word 'Indonesian'.
"You adapt," says O'Toole. "I just want to cook things that are really tasty."
The menu is initially daunting, especially for anyone (like me) who's not hugely familiar with the food from this part of the world. But the staff - and I have the sense that Chameleon is a good place to work and that there's not much of turnover - are adept at steering newbies.
We order off the Asian tapas menu, but there are also four different set menus, including one that's vegan, and the nimble women at the large, low traditional Balinese table next to us are happily tucking into those. Judging by the amount of food, these appear good value.
I've heard so many good things about the bao at Chameleon that we order four variations. And yes, they are perfect pillows of dough filled with flavour, our favourite being the sliced pork belly with pineapple compote, a felicitous balance of rich meat cut through with the sharpness of the fruit.
The buttermilk chicken version is pretty delicious too, as is another made with katsu-style 'fish fingers' of prawn and squid.
A star anise-infused Javanese short rib of beef is rich, tender and elegant, while kari java, a curry of Wicklow lamb and sweet potato, the epitome of comfort. We love the bami goreng and nasi goreng, noodles and rice respectively. And the sambal fries. And the kimchi.
So many new restaurants have opened in Dublin in recent months, with many establishments feeling more like cogs in some grand corporate property play than anything to do with food, that it's an absolute pleasure to discover a family-owned restaurant in the city centre that's simply focussed on the enjoyment of its customers.
Our bill for five, with a pint of Eight Degrees' Howling Gale, a large glass of Albariño, a few soft drinks and sparkling water, comes to €171.90 before service. Not the most traditional of Sunday dinners, granted, but delicious all the same.
ON A BUDGET
Choose from the tapas-style dishes and bao, all priced in and around a tenner, and you can eat as much or as little as you like. The Bali early bird menu is €29 per head.
ON A BLOW OUT
The Sumatra set menu is €40 per head.
THE HIGH POINT
Pork bao with pineapple compote are the business.
THE LOW POINT
Balinese-style seating would require agility, but there are regular tables.