I stare at the Google directions in my lap in frustration.
“Where the heck is this place?” I gripe as I drive by the LA Convention Center for the fourth time in fifteen minutes.
The clock reminds me that I’m now ten minutes late for dinner at Checkers Downtown at the Hilton, and I pull over and begin frantically punching commands into my new Motorola Droid, a phone that I am clearly not equipped to use. Especially considering that one of the taglines for the device is “never get lost again.”
I tear my eyes over the Google map on the screen – again it is showing me a picture of a star next to the Convention Center.
This is not a great start to the night.
I don’t make it to the restaurant (located near 6th and Grand Avenue) for another fifteen minutes. By the time I settle down at the white-cloaked table next to my two dining companions, my nerves are rattled to a point that is physically destructive for a girl of my neurotic properties. It doesn’t seem possible that I’ll be able to relax. It doesn’t seem possible that I’ll be able to enjoy my meal and my evening at a restaurant that I wasn’t even sure I wanted try when I first received the invitation to check out Chef Todd Allison’s market-inspired menu last fall.
“Checkers?” I had sputtered at the time. “At the Hilton?”
While the restaurant’s California and French-influenced menu did appeal to me, I’ve always thought that most hotel restaurants are inherently bad – the last resort of stranded guests who don’t know where else to go. But the slew of positive reviews convinced me that Checkers was, in fact, worth checking out, and I eagerly accepted the invitation to experience a five-course tasting there on a Wednesday evening.
Sitting at the table now, however, my brow so furrowed it might not revert back to its normal shape, I can’t help but wonder if I’ve made a mistake in coming. Stress like this doesn’t belong in my usual weeknight regimen. But then the wine list passes under my nose and my eyes land upon the second white wine offered by the glass – Sauvignon Blanc, Kim Crawford, Marlborough, New Zealand.
It’s my favorite white wine – the very white wine that turned me into a wine lover when my dad introduced it to me four years prior.
I order a glass and sit back into my chair – I’m ready to relax and ready to be wooed by Sous Chef David Baker, who is preparing our feast for the evening.
Chef Baker, who worked with Head Chef Todd at Studio Restaurant at the Montage Resort and Spa in Laguna before joining him at Checkers, comes by the table to see if there is anything we don’t eat. I surprise myself by shaking my head. I’m open. (Though secretly hoping he doesn’t throw a cheeseburger in there and foil my plans for my forthcoming “ultimate” first cheeseburger experience.)
The engaging chef smiles at our willingness to put our palates in his hands and departs to the kitchen to begin preparing our meal.
I’m flummoxed at how calm he is. One minute shaking our hands – the next expertly searing Ahi Tuna for our first course. The tender pieces of fish are delicately assembled over a salad of shaved red onion, cucumber, celery, and generous smear of dill aioli, and then topped with a smattering of fresh herbs. The bright earthy tones are a classic pairing with full-flavored fish like tuna or salmon, and I devour my plate – now fully on board with hotel dining.
The second course best exemplifies the restaurant’s commitment to using seasonal market-driven produce. A meaty seared Maine Diver Sea Scallop served with blood orange segments, fork mashed fingerling potato and pomegranate glaze tantalizes our tongues with contrasting textures and taste sensations that seem inherently opposed. I’m surprised at how much I like the delicate scallop with the rustic barely smashed potato.
The ubiquitous short rib is up next. While short ribs are as common on restaurant menus as chocolate flourless cake, I can’t help but be smitten by the familiar tender shreds of beef served over a decidedly cheesy sweet pea risotto. The dish imparts a comforting blanket of flavors on my tongue, and I’m perfectly content to enjoy them.
Our final savory dish of the night is my favorite of the evening. Two perfectly pink pieces of grilled filet mignon are unconventionally paired with macerated tomatoes, fava beans and grilled romaine to spectacular effect. The lightness of the lettuce and tomatoes and vibrant beans plays well with the rich meat in this upscale version of a steak salad, and is welcome relief after the heartier third course. This is the plate that I will think about the next morning. This is the plate I want to recreate at home.
We end the night with fried churro sticks accompanied by a dish of chocolate sauce for dipping. It’s a very respectable version that I completely disrespect when I make the executive decision to drink the chocolate directly from the cup. My furrowed brow is long gone at this juncture in the evening -- replaced by giddy excitement about the meal I’ve just enjoyed at... a hotel restaurant.
Checkers? At the Hilton? In Downtown?
And now that I know where it is, I can’t wait to go back to sample more of Chef Todd’s vibrant and focused Cal-French cuisine.
Checkers Downtown at the Hilton
535 South Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, California 90071
Phone: (213) 624-0000
Note: On Thursday evenings Checkers hosts a “FOURevent” Happy Hour from 4 pm – 8 pm. Diners can enjoy four $4 small plates and four $4 libations that change every week.