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Checking Out Checkers to Taste the Tasting Menu

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So often the restaurants inside hotels remain a secret to locals because they're filled up with out of towners who are checked in for a stay. Chef Todd Allison's tasting menu at Checkers Restaurant, inside the Hilton Checkers in Downtown, is a hidden gem that locals should check out.

One of the first surprises about the hotel itself is that despite the Hilton moniker, it's actually a charming boutique-style hotel, fully restored to evoke the glamor of the late 1920s when this 12-story building was built. Having enjoyed a stay-cation kind of night there a couple of years ago, I was more than happy to accept an invitation to pay the Restaurant a visit to see what Chef Allison was up to in the kitchen since he came on board as Executive Chef last September.

Oftentimes, the best way to get to know a chef and a restaurant is to indulge in a tasting menu. This allows you to see a range of dishes and flavors, and really put the chef in the driver's seat while you sit back and enjoy the ride. Checkers Restaurant offers a 5-course tasting menu for $70, which is a comfortable indulgence for both the wallet and the stomach when it comes to fine dining.

The evening began with a cocktail from the thoughtful drinks menu from Four, the bar at Checkers, as presented to us by restaurant manager Tyler Dow, who explained that their drinks program was focused on classic mixology, and the drinks were chiefly from the early 20th century and use only freshly squeezed juices and no mixes.

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Lately I can't seem to get enough of the crisp but brooding Dark and Stormy, a rum concoction invented by sailors who wanted to imbibe (rum) but not get the scurvy (limes). The drink evolved to include ginger beer, Dow noted, an ingredient addition which makes the spicy, refreshing drink one of my all-time favorites. Checkers' Dark and Stormy did not disappoint, and if you're in Downtown and need to ride out a storm, or, hell, just enjoy some really beautiful cocktails, add Four to the list of belly-up-worthy bars.

With Allison at the helm, the four savory and one sweet courses were well-paced, and demonstrated a welcome match-up of simplicity and innovation. A restrained Japanese Yellowtail Crudo hit a light, exciting note, thanks to the supple sliced fish and the vibrant hints of yuzu kosho (a bold, hard-to-find ingredient that adds a bold zing to your bite), sea salt, and meyer lemon.

For the salad course, we had an ambitious combination of baby candy-striped beets with a sumptuous wedge of Humboldt Fog cheese, watercress, and a phenomenal cranberry pistachio pesto. The beets admittedly took a back seat to the rich goat cheese, but the pesto stole the show.

A perfectly-cooked piece of Alaskan Halibut was center stage for the seafood course. It glistened and crackled from the pan-sear, while the flesh was flaky and moist. The notes of sweet tomato in the sauce and the baby artichokes gave the dish a balance of briny and sugary.

The last savory course was, of course, the meat entree. Thanks to savvy portioning, the meat was itself not gargantuan or too rich, but rather carried on the overall theme of showcasing components like the protein in combination with balanced, distinguishable accompanying flavors. Here, tender--almost dare I say delicate?--slices of grilled Colorado lamb loin sat almost quivering in a shallow pool of earthy natural jus and an heirloom bean ragout. Not fatty or bulky in the least, the lamb signals that Allison understands the need to satisfy but not overwhelm the palate or the appetite. Had the waiter not come to take my plate when he had, I can't promise I would not have spooned up the rest of the delicious jus and taken things over the edge just a little.

For dessert, my tastebuds tingled with the bitter-sweet jolt of coffee and sugar as presented in a petite Pot de Creme of organic espresso and chocolate, topped with just a bit of whipped cream. Here the espresso gave the mellow plus velour of the chocolate creme a tantalizing injection of an almost salty bitterness. When greeted by Chef Allison after the meal, I will confess to telling him I was so enamored with the dessert that I wanted to just sort of put my face in it. Maybe that was the glass of Ravenswood Zinfandel talking. No, wait--I'm pretty sure it was me. Give it a taste, and you'll know what I'm talking about.

I guess Checkers Restaurant--and Chef Todd Allison--are destined to not remain a secret for much longer, if a tasting menu such as the one I had can be any indication. Fine dining in Downtown is a melange of long-running favorites, like the Water Grill, but despite Checkers' 1920s roots, the Restaurant is an up-and-comer worth keeping an eye on.