Chef Jeff Smith keeps a small cutting garden just outside the kitchen for snipping fresh herbs during the height of the season. Smith and his wife, Brenda, opened the Chameleon Cafe on Harford Road in 2001; he’d been wanting to feature a true Maryland Menu since then. Fresh parsley gets a fine chop to be used as a final garnish.
One of the appetizers on the Maryland Menu features smoked bluefish and mussels topped with a sour cream lemon sauce, hard-boiled eggs and tomato aspic. “The Women’s Industrial Exchange inspired the tomato aspic,” says chef Jeff Smith. “I wanted to put it with the fish because I love bluefish. I want everyone to try it.”
Pan-seared rockfish will be topped with a saute of crabmeat, cucumbers and bacon and finished with cream. “This is our take on imperial sauce,” says Smith. “We wanted to mix the rockfish with the crabmeat in a creamy white sauce.”
Above: Pastry chef Tina Perry puts the finishing touches on a cantaloupe-and-crab salad. These soup tureens will hold steaming servings of corn chowder and potato-and-leek soup. Below: Jeff Smith was raised in Parkville and, after a tour of duty in New Orleans restaurants, chose Harford Road as the location for his first solo venture. The smearcase, a cottage cheese-based cheesecake with a biscuit-like crust, is an adaptation of a German dessert. Smith and wife Brenda with baby Gertrude.
Chicken Maryland is a recipe that Smith found in the vintage 1907 “Escoffier Cookbook”: breaded, pan-fried chicken garnished with bananas. Although there’s little evidence it was ever served here, several diners remarked they’d had it in Europe.
Smith buys Silver Queen corn, tomatoes and cantaloupes from George’s produce stand in Parkville, chicken from Springfield Farms, and fresh mozzarella for his tomato salad from Mastellone’s Italian Market, another Parkville institution.
More than a decade ago, when Jeff Smith was paying his dues during a tour of duty of New Orleans restaurants, he noticed how proud the local cooks and customers were of the region’s cuisine and traditional dishes. He decided that if he ever had his own restaurant, he’d create a menu based on the favorites of his hometown and home state.
Smith and his wife, Brenda Wolf Smith, opened Chameleon Café in 2001. Three years later, he made good on his vow, and created a menu that paid homage to classic regional dishes that had faded into history. The menu also honored his first cooking instructor— his mother— by offering dishes she had made for him and his eight siblings as they were growing up in Parkville. By offering the menu from late August through late September, he was able to showcase Maryland’s late-summer stars— cantaloupe, Silver Queen corn and Eastern Shore tomatoes.
To prepare, Smith, sous chef Steve Francis and Chameleon Café’s pastry chef Tina Perry, a self-proclaimed cookbook junkie and fellow Parkville native, spent hours in the library researching recipes. Paging through “The Escoffier Cookbook,” the classic 1907 French guide culinaire, they discovered Steak Baltimore, a grilled New York strip steak garnished with corn pudding, an airy concoction akin to a soufflé, made with corn, tomatoes and green peppers. The recipe is French, “but if you look at that dish, it’s pure Maryland with the tomatoes and corn,” says Smith. The dish was so popular that it made a repeat appearance on the 2005 Maryland Menu.
So did Escoffier’s Chicken Maryland: breaded, pan-fried chicken garnished with bananas. According to Francis Beirne’s 1951 classic “The Amiable Baltimoreans,” bananas were one of the Port of Baltimore’s 10 leading imports, and they made their way into all sorts of recipes. There’s little evidence the dish was ever served in Maryland restaurants— but last summer several diners told Smith they’d sampled the dish in Europe. “That’s what I love about French cooking,” he says. “Chicken Maryland is Chicken Maryland the world over.”
One of the homiest entrees on this year’s menu was bluefish with lemon mayonnaise, Smith’s re-creation of a dish his mother used to make. Although all three of Barbara Smith’s oldest sons learned to cook at their mother’s side, only Jeff really took to it and loved it, his mother says. She loves the rockfish and crab dishes on the 2005 Maryland Menu, and praises Jeff’s addition of leeks to her recipe for potato soup. “He’s far surpassed me in preparing meals,” Barbara Smith says proudly. “My cooking was utilitarian. His shows a love for his craft.”
In the dessert department, Perry had no trouble coming up with Maryland-inspired creations. She notes the prevalence of black walnut trees in Northeast Baltimore (she had a huge one in her back yard as a child) and remembers that her family had “something with black walnuts— cake, cookies, even black walnut candy— for every holiday.” Perry’s “something with black walnuts” is a dense fudge cake made from walnuts she buys at the Dutch Market in Cockeysville.
Then there is the smearcase, a light, tart cottage cheese-based cheesecake baked on a biscuit-like crust. (As far as Smith knows, it’s German in origin and only found in Baltimore.) Smith remembers that when he was a culinary student at Baltimore International College, his cooking instructor “began talking about this cake that people in Baltimore call cheesecake, but it isn’t really cheesecake. It took me a few minutes to realize that he was talking about smearcase,” Smith says. “The first time I had what other people call cheesecake, it was weird.”
“When we first talked about the Maryland menu,” Perry remembers, “that was the first thing I said. ‘We have to find a smearcase recipe.’ You just don’t find it much anymore.” Her version evolved from a combination of three recipes including one from her grandmother (“She had a few misses and then a hit,” Smith jokes) to re-create the “cheesecake” she enjoyed eating at local bakeries like Fenwick and Woodlea— although her cake, she says, “has more love put into it.”
After Smith’s first Maryland menu, diners phoned the restaurant to ask Smith if he was going to repeat it. Now he plans to offer it every year in late summer. Though he acknowledges his Maryland menu might be a little old-fashioned, a little “foodie-cum-homemaker,” he is passionate about it. “Baltimore used to be a food town,” he says a little wistfully. “I want people to know these dishes existed.”