In early December as restaurants were re-opening following what can now be referred to as November’s ‘mini-lockdown’ there was a degree of positivity in the air, at least in Tier 2 London. Another national lockdown seemed unlikely, with operators - perhaps naively - preparing for a bumper Christmas trading period.
Alex Ghalleb was certainly feeling bullish when he showed us around Chameleon, an enormous lifestyle restaurant, private members club and events space set in and within the grounds of church-turned-events-venue One Marylebone.
The 56,000 sq ft space was custom made for trading during, and as the capital recovered from, the pandemic, with plentiful outdoor space and nine luxury greenhouses to seat up to six people from multiple households ‘outside’.
Ghalleb - who prior to Chameleon held senior roles at Soho House, Grind and Notting Hill restaurant Gold - was all set to launch Chameleon in early January but, like many of his peers, has had to settle for outdoor trading on 12 April instead.
Is he frustrated? “Momentarily, yes,” he admits. “But we’d gone through a very stop-start 2020 so we weren’t surprised. I don’t think anyone can be surprised by anything that’s happening at the moment. We’ve had to be agile and pragmatic to find the best solution for the restrictions we’re allowed to operate within.”
What has left a bad taste in the mouth is the Government’s moving of the goalposts when it comes to what constitutes an outside space. What was okay in the run up to Christmas as operators in some parts of England scrambled to seat people comfortably outside because of the single household rule now isn’t.
“If you can’t smoke in it you can’t eat or drink in it. Initially our greenhouses were viewed by the council as a Covid-safe environment, but they now can’t be used for the first phase of opening,” Ghalleb explains.
Chameleon has therefore been forced to change things up. The eastern outside area with the greenhouses will remain closed until the 17 May but food and drink will be served on the opposite side of the church. It will have around 100 covers and be half covered by a large roof structure and four large adjustable umbrellas.
This western area was originally going to offer a less-involved mezze and cocktail offering alongside various street food traders but will now serve the more ambitious menu originally planned for the greenhouses, which range from four to 30 covers.
Middle Eastern promise
Israeli chef Elior Balbul is responsible for all the food at Chameleon. His CV includes time with some of the biggest names of Tel Aviv’s food scene including Meir Adoni. Balbul - who is of Moroccan heritage - has gone on to head up a number of kitchens in the city including Catit and Blue Sky. He has experience of international openings too, having launched the critically well-received Alenbi in New York in 2017 (the restaurant continues to trade but Balbul is no longer involved, having left the project for Chameleon).
He seems like a good fit for the project, especially with Israeli cuisine’s fusion of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavours so well-suited to relaxed alfresco eating. “We’re lucky to have found him,” says Ghalleb. “He has a great energy about him, and he’s not stuck in his ways. He’s also considered to be one of the best kosher gourmet chefs in the world.”
Chameleon isn’t planning on making a big song and dance about this last point, but - while not a strictly kosher affair - the venue won’t serve pork. “His focus is on vegetables, which is a great fit for London dining in 2021. The avoidance of that particular product will be part of the Chameleon brand.”
Billed as Mediterranean with some north African influences, the launch menu will include Yemen brioche challah; aubergine carpaccio, shrimp shish Barak, Moroccan octopus; charcoal-grilled lamb sirloin with cabbage gratin.; and Balbul’s signature deconstructed falafel dish, which sees broad beans flavoured with cumin and lemon juice shaped into quenelles and dusted with a chickpea-and-panko crumble and served in a pool of white tahini.
Food will be served from the kitchen that used to service One Marylebone’s once lucrative events business. Spread across a brace of shipping containers adjoining the church, the space has had to be reconfigured, with the team swapping out banks of combi-ovens for equipment more suited to a la carte restaurant cooking. The kitchen is on the west side of the church so food will need to be carried a not inconsiderable distance to the east side of the grounds.
As restrictions continue to lift, more and more elements will be introduced to achieve Ghalleb and his investor’s ultimate vision of a multi-faceted lifestyle brand. Initiatives will include live music and performances; a silent cinema; a weekend market; and wellness and fitness sessions. The former church’s impressive nave will soon start hosting events again (it was previously a popular venue for weddings, product launches and fashion events) with Chameleon potentially collaborating on F&B and other elements.
Chameleon’s The Club private members club was originally supposed to open towards the end of the summer but will now open in early November in time for a (hopefully lucrative) festive season. Located in the church’s crypt, the space can house up to 500 over two levels and will include an open-plan restaurant and workspace on the upper floor and a more late-night orientated space on the lower floor incorporating a cocktail bar and nightclub.
Keen not to tread on the toes of his former employer, Ghalleb hasn’t decided who to target but says he will probably look to attract people from multiple industries to create a diverse feel, but the overall vibe will be “somewhere between Soho House and Chiltern Firehouse”. Balbul will soon be tasked with creating a slightly more casual menu that’s more Mediterranean in feel than that served above ground.
The difficulty in getting Chameleon opened has put a dampener on the the brand’s expansion plans. Back in December, Ghalleb had two further large sites in his crosshairs but has since stepped away from them. “Clearly we anticipated being open three months ago. We’re going to see what consumer confidence is like before making any concrete decisions on site number two.”
Though Ghalleb is a little concerned about the pace at which workers will return to offices, he remains optimistic about the project overall. “Launching in stages will allow us to get it right and we’ll also have lots of reasons to talk about Chameleon.
“The upside of the cautious approach the Government is taking is that people are going to feel safe as they shake off the Covid-cobwebs and emerge from the zombie-like state we’ve all been in this past year.”