Todd Allison Debuts at Checkers With A New Menu + Allison's Recipe for Cranberry Pistachio Pesto

The scaffolding outside the Hilton Checkers this week is just one sign of what has been going on there. The hotel has not only revamped guest rooms and downstairs lounges but has redesigned its restaurant, Checkers Downtown. The idea is to make it a top spot for dinner (it's already a power lunch destination).

New chef Todd Allison has free reign to introduce his fresh, seasonal, local food. Previously at Bollinger's in Santa Barbara, Allison has worked with Michael Mina at Aqua (now Stonehill Tavern) at the St. Regis Monarch Beach in Dana Point and with James Boyce at Studio Restaurant at the Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach. He's well aware that Thomas Keller once cooked at Checkers.

To show his own stuff, Allison composed a six-course debut tasting dinner matched with wines by restaurant manager B.Tyler Dow. First came cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, including a stand-out salad of candy-striped beets, Humboldt Fog cheese and cranberry-pistachio pesto. (See the recipe below.)

newly renovated interior of Checkers
newly renovated interior of Checkers

Dow put together a specialty cocktail list that includes a Black Checker (cachaca and blackberries), Red Checker ( vodka and raspberries) and the vintage Prohibition (gin, Lillet Blanc, fresh orange juice and apricot brandy).

Then on to seared Japanese yellowtail with cured lemon, Nicoise olives and tzatziki sauce. The croutons in celery root and apple soup were vanilla-flavored, like having dessert in the soup course, but why not?

Pan-seared loup de mer came with roasted garlic and baby vegetables in a sort of disassembled ratatouille. Allison added sautéed figs, chanterelles and a Port wine glaze to roasted Sonoma duck breast and paired grilled Colorado lamb loin with Rancho Gordo heirloom bean ragout and natural jus. After all that, he had the good sense to end with a simple dessert, chocolate pot de crème topped with espresso whipped cream.

And if you've had your fill of cranberry sauce after Thanksgiving, move on to Allison's cranberry pistachio pesto for the next round of holiday dinners.

Cranberry-pistachio pesto

From: Chef Todd Allison, of Checkers.

Makes: about 2 cups.

1 cup dried cranberries

1/2 cup pistachios

4 cloves roasted garlic

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Salt, pepper

2 cups olive oil, about

1. Combine the cranberries, pistachios, garlic, cheese and salt and pepper to taste in a food processor. Blend, gradually adding enough of the olive oil to form a paste. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed.

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