1 Fownes Street Lower, Temple Bar, Dublin 2
I’m old enough to recall when Temple Bar was the coolest part of Dublin but these days the huge volume of tourists makes it one of the last places most Irish people would go to on a Friday night.
It is easy to forget that there are still around a dozen very good restaurants in the quarter and touches of that hip past are still there if you look hard enough.
Chameleon was opened by Carol Walsh in the heart of Temple Bar 25 years ago in 1994 when the quarter had an exotic hipster feel and was still home to parts of the rag trade.
She was soon joined by her husband Kevin O’Toole who is now the chef, and with their combined creativity and charm Chameleon remains an oasis.
When it opened the focus was solely on Indonesian food and I used to visit with a Dutch friend who craved Nasi Goreng (Indonesian fried rice), Satay chicken, spicy Sambals and sweet sticky Ketjap Manis sauces — such flavours being commonplace in the Netherlands thanks to its large Indonesian population from their former colonies.
Chameleon has survived, I think, because it has innovated and while some classics have always been on the menu their scope has broadened in line with the Irish palate.
These days Chameleon no longer calls itself an ‘Indonesian restaurant’, and although South East Asia is still the main focus, Kevin is making won-tons and steamed Bao and putting touches of Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan on the menu — they introduced a vegan menu several years before such an idea became fashionable.
I visited with the Engineer and some friends, including an American who has spent time in Indonesia.
The menu has a selection of set menus and small plate options and we were advised by the charming staff to order a mix of menus and side dishes.
Kevin has put huge effort into getting his steamed buns right and he was quick off the mark with Bao on the menu within months of David Chang making them the trendiest food in New York when he opened Momofuku.
We tried the Pork version which had a slice of juicy slow-cooked pork belly and the ‘Fish Finger’ version which makes it sound less delicious than it was — sweet soft fish inside a golden crumb crust and pitch-perfect saucing, enough heat to make your lips tingle and enough roundness and balance to lift the flavours without overwhelming the pleasures of the pillowy soft bun.
We ate too many dishes to mention but I recommend trying the following: Perkedel, a crisp fried potato and chickpea cake with soft aromatically spicey flavours; Slow cooked Beef Rendang curry; silky Bami Goreng noodles in a rich soy sauce, Otak Otak Pipeh Fish cakes with garlic, ginger and chilli in a panko crumb and Sweet Tiger Prawns with pineapple and chilli.
Definitely order extra roast peanuts and homemade kimchi and salads plus extra sambal and Ketjap Manus sauce.
Also be aware that ‘sweet’ is often mixed with savoury in Indonesia — embrace it.
Dessert is never a major focus in Asian restaurants but Chameleon has put some thought into it with a selection of ice creams and sorbets, Chocolate Brownies and a regularly changing Panna Cotta.
We ordered some extra spoons and a creamy light Strawberry and Honey Panna Cotta that wobbled pleasingly and tasted of summer and a Pistachio Ice Cream Sandwich.
Decently executed ice-cream between crunchy nutty biscuits gave exactly the right texture, and with some stewed Apple and a Butterscotch Sauce to liven things up a little.
Chameleon is warmly recommended especially for a group as the joy is in the mix of dishes and flavours to try — the more people, the more dishes you can order.
Do also ask if you can have one of the large low tables surrounded by fluffy velvet cushions tables which will add an extra touch of the exotic to the experience.
Dinner for five including a large selection of shared small and medium sized dishes and sides plus two shared desserts, a bottle and a carafe of wine cost €187.45
Wednesday to Sunday: 4pm–10pm;
closed Monday and Tuesday
In a Sentence
A long, long-established Indonesian/Asian restaurant in Temple Bar with supremely tasty and brightly focused flavours and a pleasing lightness of touch.