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Restaurants : Eat, Drink & Be Comfy

August 20, 1995|Irene Virbila

Whenever Anna, a New York friend, plans her annual trips to Japan or Hong Kong, she tries to include a stopover in L.A. I love to see her, but I'm sometimes hard pressed to think of where to take her for dinner. She can't hear very well and, if I take her to a place where we all have to shout across the table, she's miserable. Unless we play musical chairs with every course, she can really only visit with the person on her right and my other dinner guests are hoarse by the end of the evening.

Anna also expects to eat well. And she gets extremely grumpy if the service lags. But against all odds, when she came to town last time, I picked a restaurant that came through with flying colors: Checkers Restaurant in Downtown's Wyndham Checkers Hotel.

The hotel's dining room has been designed to soothe frenzied travelers with muted greens and tans. Extravagantly ruched Austrian blinds filter the sun's glare. The Empire-style chairs are leather, generous in size. Tables, except for those along the banquette, are widely spaced. But even when you're seated along the banquette, not to fret. The seat back is velour and the pillow behind fits the hollow of your neck. The effect is quietly and comfortably elegant. "I feel like I'm in San Francisco here," said Anna, surprised. In fact, the hotel, part of Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, was owned by the same people who managed the small luxury hotel Campton Place in San Francisco.

Chef Andreas Kistler's menu is very much in the California eclectic mode. The Viennese-born chef has a European's sense of moderation. When he gives dishes an Asian accent, he knows just how far to go without taking it over-the-top. The result is food that should please just about everyone.

The complimentary hors d'oeuvre one night is the best thing I've sampled in days: a dab of sticky rice with albacore that has a mysteriously smoky edge. Among the first courses, galette of overlapping, ripe avocado slice is encircled with sweet, meaty tiger prawns sitting in a pool of tart lime-chervil vinaigrette. I love the refreshing salad of shredded daikon and pickled ginger that comes with the yellowtail sashimi; a tad less soy, and this dish would be perfect. Duck breast carpaccio isn't raw at all, but hardwood-smoked, musky and delicious, medium-rare. And sauteed foie gras comes in a "gingerbread sauce" redolent of sweet spices and wine. A special of lump crab meat with a finely diced cucumber salad, layered and turned out of a cylindrical mold, is pretty but bland.

Pork tenderloin? You don't see that on many menus. And when Anna said she likes it juicy, still a little pink, that's what she got. Encrusted with lentils and caraway seeds, and paired with buttery cabbage leaves and white beans, it makes a surprisingly light entree. New Zealand lamb chops, three fingers high, are beautifully cooked, very mild in flavor, perked up with rosti potatoes (sort of a sophisticated hash brown) and a colorful saute of peppers. There's a tall beef tenderloin with a starchy yam-pecan cake cap in a subtly garlic-infused Bordelaise sauce. And we all want the last bite of the springy soba noodles tangled with slivered vegetables in a chile-spiked lemon grass sauce that accompanies sauteed prawns and scallops.

It doesn't take a crystal ball to divine the most popular dessert. Two hints: warm and chocolate. It's a dark, moist slab of chocolate cake wearing a topknot of dreamy chocolate mousse, with good hot fudge sauce poured over. There's also a rhubarb and pear pizzette that I like very much, though its only relation to pizza is that it's round: a circlet of puff pastry covered with rhubarb and a swirl of thinly sliced pears, served warm with a ball of vanilla bean ice cream. Key lime and lemon meringue tart is too sweet, but the tropical rum raisin ice cream scooped into a cinnamon tortilla shell and drizzled with a buttery burnt sugar sauce is fun.

Checkers' wine list is less than stellar. In fact, it's downright dull--and like most hotel wine lists, expensive. Most of the emphasis goes to California wines with only a token selection of French and Italian wines. Missing are most of the exciting new generation of California producers, including the best from Central Coast vineyards.

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