[Editors’ note: This review appeared in our April 2020 issue, but was held for publication online until indoor dining resumed.]
While chameleons protect themselves by blending into their environments, they can also fire up color when the situation calls for it. At Café Chameleon in Bloomingdale, executive chef Bryan Gregg metaphorically does a bit of both, to strong effect. His deftly executed food can certainly soothe, but its strong suit is stimulation.
Consider his short-rib ravioli. The beef in this entrée is placed like a thatch on top of three oversize ravioli, which are filled with a mélange of roasted chestnuts, ricotta, Parmigiano-Reggiano, basil, parsley and chives in a black-truffle butter sauce. The meat, braised 18 hours in a red wine-and-herb stock with fat and marrow, is luscious. Gregg rightly calls the dish “luxurious but unpretentious.”
Café Chameleon’s whimsical name refers to bands of color-shifting lights set in the recessed ceiling of the dining room. These are less intrusive than they may sound, though the effect doesn’t quite fit with the formal architecture of the room, the Van Gogh reproductions on the walls, and the round-backed, Louis XIV–ish chairs (which are comfortably upholstered).
The Civitano family opened the restaurant in February 2019. Dominic, the father, runs a construction company. When the kids were growing up, the family would often travel with him to the dog shows in which he entered his purebreds.
“No matter where, we’d find the best restaurant,” says son Trey, 28, now Café Chameleon’s general manager. A visit to Daniel Boulud’s Manhattan restaurant, Daniel, when Trey was 10 made a lasting impression. “I knew I was looking at restaurant perfection,” Trey says. “I remember thinking, Maybe some day.”
In its first five months, Café Chameleon went through two head chefs. Then Gregg was hired. “I realized pretty fast this could work for me,” says the chef. “There’s a lot of trust and a lot of freedom here. It’s a great fit.”
Gregg, 43, grew up in Chatham, where “big family dinners were our best times.” After culinary school, he eventually became an executive chef at Michael Anthony’s in Jersey City. In 2013, he opened his own place in Montclair, the Southern-influenced Escape, which earned favorable reviews, but closed in 2016. Gregg represented the Garden State at the 2015 Great American Seafood Cook Off in New Orleans, where he won an event at the Seafood Showdown.
Gregg calls his menu “micro-seasonal, changing with whatever Mother Nature comes up with.” He adds, “I love it when diners ask what the daily specials are, but the truth is, the whole menu is a special.” Even Gregg’s bread and butter change regularly; I relished his crusty fennel rolls with garlic butter, and on another visit, his black-sesame biscuits with sea-salt butter.
Appetizers always include a soup, such as butternut squash or roasted pear with rye croutons, and a salad, such as a recent tangle of baby mustard greens, watercress and arugula with pickled summer squash, roasted peanuts, and Oregon blue cheese. A pork-belly starter was smoky, meaty and crisp, with just enough luxurious fat. Steak tartare, made from in-house dry-aged New York strip, had its umami bass note balanced by pickled onions and lightly fermented local black-trumpet mushrooms. It was topped with the perfect complement, almond-and-butter crisps.
The most popular appetizer is the octopus. The tender poached tentacle is glazed with sweet-hot satsuma orange and chili oil, sprinkled with Marcona almond bits, and grilled over applewood chips. It’s dazzling and delicious. But Gregg’s most indulgent starter is his whopping, perfectly pan-seared foie gras with persimmon purée, chili-marinated local honeycomb, and a smattering of sweet, nutty granola.
Among entrées, terrific roast chicken, from Goffle Farms in Wyckoff, was served with pumpkin polenta in a sauce peppery with house-made ’nduja, the spreadable pork sausage. Equally good were Barnegat Bay scallops seared with butter, thyme and tarragon, served with acorn squash and oyster mushrooms braised in seafood stock.
Angus Prime sirloin gains beefiness and lush texture from 28–32 days of dry aging in-house. Ours was served sliced, with a creamy sauce made with potato and braised onions. Gregg also dry ages pork chops, lending the demure white meat a novel brawniness. With the chop came a wonderful hunk of pork belly and a mound of winningly pudding-textured creamed spinach. My favorite side was Gregg’s sensational truffle fries, showered with microplaned black truffles and ready for dipping in a bowl of delectable roasted-garlic aioli.
Gregg makes all the desserts. His Jersey apple turnover, aromatic with cinnamon, nutmeg and anise, resembles an empanada and incorporates bourbon pecans, crumbly walnut streusel and house-made vanilla ice cream. The caramel citrus tart finely balances sweet and tart, and the bar-shaped sweet potato pavé comes with spiced Chantilly vanilla whipped cream and a freshly fried churro. Only the warm Valrhona chocolate cake missed the spot, being dry. No matter. Though the LED colors in the ceiling change to no particular effect, Gregg’s cooking manages to change engagingly while remaining consistently excellent.Click here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:New American
- Price Range:Expensive
- Price Details:Appetizers, $12–$21; entrées, $18–$36; sides, $8; desserts, $8–$9
- Ambience:Odd mix of formal and informal, but with quite comfortable chairs
- Service:Welcoming and well paced
- Wine list:Full bar, reasonably priced wine list