Chameleon London: the cream of the crop
Even though it’s one of the newer kids on the block, Chameleon London has already caused a major stir. Here, Suzanne Baum steps up to the plate with the main man, head chef Elior Balbul
After a year of working from home, I’d got used to my Zoom meetings and commute from bed to home study. So, to suddenly find myself in swanky Marylebone, in one of the most luxurious dining venues, face-to-face with an actual person had me on edge (or maybe that was the high heels I had actually forgotten how to walk in). Overnight I’d gone from the highlight of my day being the laundry smelling of summer detergent, to walking into the hands of one of the best chefs in the world. No wonder my brain felt a bit fried.
I already knew about this new restaurant venture taking shape. Working in the media, press releases fill my inbox daily but there was more to this than just the monthly update I was getting from the team behind it. There was the added whispers of excitement from colleagues and the buzz surrounding Chameleon that I was picking up on; after an awful year for the hospitality industry this promised to bring a much-needed dining option for guests.
“Chameleon is going to be a space that offers a vibrant assortment of experiences, all to be enjoyed under one roof,” explained Alex Ghalleb – the restauranteur in charge of spearheading this multi-faceted restaurant venture within the grounds of a Grade I-listed former church.
And that venue sits inside the imposing building right opposite Great Portland Street station on the Euston Road. If you’ve driven past it as many times as I have, you’ll agree it sticks out like a sore thumb. The same could in fact be said of me as I tentatively entered the new venue. Having forgotten the art of walking out of slippers (never mind socialising) I looked unsteady on my feet even before I’d touched the amazing wine list offered to me.
I also figured, after the year I had had – resulting in my husband and I discussing if dogs ever had middle names on our daily walk – I was quite possibly one of the most dullest people on the planet. It would be more interesting to watch paint dry or grass grow I embarrassingly thought as I mentally tried to get my head back into the real world of work meetings. So, when I found out our interview was in fact actually taking place in a greenhouse that still required a lick of Dulux, I felt I fitted in rather nicely.
This was the first meeting I had had off Zoom in so long, I didn’t know where to look. Beautifully decorated grounds, chic greenhouses, garden patios, festoon lights; coming out of the virtual world felt surreal. And then the food. Dishes upon dishes of examples from the menu, all under the curation of Israeli chef Elior Balbul. From Yemen brioche challah and aubergine carpaccio to shrimp shish barak, and Yellowtail sashimi with datterini tomato, buttermilk yuzu curd, celery and green tomato consommé, the food is simply magical.
And that is no surprise as Elior has worked alongside the biggest names in the Israeli culinary scene. His work has taken him all over the world, from Head Chef at the kosher Blue Sky restaurant in Tel Aviv to New York where he opened a modern contemporary Israeli restaurant, Alenbi. The restaurant offered something the New York food scene had never seen before; a fine dining experience while also being gourmet kosher food with Mediterranean and North African influences.
Having just arrived in London three months ago, Elior tells me that he has had no time to acclimatise to his new surroundings and is yet to find his feet properly. Surely, I joke, this could be a possible recipe for disaster taking over one of the biggest restaurant ventures in a city you know nothing about?
“It couldn’t be further than the truth,” Elior tells me in his warm, Israeli accent. “This is my dream, the path I am ready to embrace and I am just ready to get my teeth into it.” So am I, I tell him as my eyes glaze over the dishes he is preparing.
Although I am here to talk about the food, I cannot overlook the fact how badly the hospitality industry has fared over the past year. With so many beloved London restaurants having been forced to close permanently under the pressures of the last, brutal year, it has had such a hard impact. So, to be at the helms of launching a new restaurant, I ask Elior, must be a very daunting task?
“As a chef you learn to deal with all types of stress and it just makes you fight and become a stronger person. After I left my last restaurant I was inundated with so many new job offers but nothing sat right and then the pandemic hit so I was forced to leave New York and go back to Israel.
“This year has given me time to reflect. I have been finding out a lot about myself and what I want to do next and focus on the food I want to create. When I spoke to the team at Chameleon I was ready to take on this challenge as their vision matched mine perfectly.
“Anyone can make Israeli food like shawarma falafel and humus but I’ll be redefining what it really is, adding in my own DNA.
“Israeli food is trendy and accessible to everyone and I have every faith diners will love what we are going to do.”
That aside, I do wonder how nervous people will be in terms of Covid-safety. Elior is quick to reassure me safety is of upmost importance to the team.
“Everything will be Covid safe, we will start off in small numbers following government rules and then will grow as and when allowed. Even in my kitchen my staff will be required to keep a 2m distance.”
For Elior, whose passion for Tel Avivian food started in his mother’s kitchen - where he learnt about the authentic flavours of his Moroccan heritage - taking each day step by step is what he believes in.
“If Covid has taught us anything, it is life is precious, do not rush and be grateful for what we have.”
And that, he most certainly is, pointing to his chefs whites and saying “this makes me proud”.
However – he still believes it is important to focus on the future so that you can give yourself goals to work towards. And when it comes to the Chameleon, he tells me: "Come back in seven month’s time and a lot will have changed, it is going to be unbelievable.”
And that I truly believe, for the restaurant has big plans not only to expand inside but to use all the vast building space to create numerous experiences; a private space will open in the vaults under the church offering a friendship club where guests can enjoy entertainment and parties, galleries will be used for up and coming artists and there will be a number of fitness and holistic classes, as well as places to zone out if you want time alone.
On that note, as we emerge from lockdown, social interactions may well be difficult for some. Trust me, I was a jabbering wreck not used to being fully propelled into the real world again. So, whether you are after some solitary space or ready to embrace dining out again, this is certainly one place that will provide both. So guys……get ready, steady and book!!!!!
Launching on Friday 23rd April, Chameleon will offer a Tel Avivian sharing style menu and al fresco dining in the Garden lounge. On the 21st May the Greenhouses will open to the public, which seat 150 covers split between nine individually styled Greenhouses.
For more details, visit chameleon.london