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Keller Leaves the Chill of New York for Checkers

One of New York’s top chefs is moving to Los Angeles to take over the kitchen at Checkers Hotel downtown. He is Thomas Keller, whose cooking over a three-year period at Rakel in Greenwich Village was as elegant and innovative and meticulously right as any in Manhattan. After brief apprentice stints at five of the top restaurants in Paris--Toit de Passy, Chiberta, Le Pre Catelan, Guy Savoy and Taillevent--Keller (who was born in Oceanside) cooked at the Polo Restaurant in New York’s Westbury Hotel, and then at La Reserve and Restaurant Raphael, also in New York. In early 1987, he and veteran French restaurateur Serge Raoul opened Rakel (the name being a portmanteau abbreviation of their respective last names), where Keller earned critical acclaim for his sauteed sweetbreads with jalapeno sauce and deep-fried spinach, roasted Maine lobster with beet essence, grilled pigeon with honey vinegar sauce and other such imaginative but solidly executed specialties.

Last year, Rakel fell victim to the New York restaurant slump, and Keller hooked up briefly with chef/cookie maven David Liederman at his Parisian-bistro-like Chez Louis.

“We feel that Thomas is a man of extraordinary capability and great discipline,” says Bill Wilkinson, president of the Ayala Hotel group (which owns both Checkers and the Campton Place Hotel in San Francisco), “and these are terribly important qualities in any kitchen--especially a hotel kitchen.” Keller, who will be in place at Checkers around the first of February, replaces Jerry Comfort. Comfort has moved back to the Napa Valley--where he once worked as daytime chef at Domaine Chandon--and is now consulting in the Bay Area at, among other places, the newly opened Cypress Club. Richard Allen, Comfort’s sous-chef, will serve as acting chef at Checkers until Keller takes over.

MORE TALL FOOD: As noted recently elsewhere in these pages, “tall food"--food piled high on the plate--is starting to appear around Southern California at such establishments as Citrus, Tra Fiore and Patina. But nobody hereabouts has yet gone as far as a hot new eatery in London called Tall Orders.

The gimmick there is stacked food. Everything, that is, is served in woven Chinese-style steamer baskets piled high on top of one another. When you’ve consumed the contents of the top one, you remove it and attack the next one down. The food isn’t Chinese, though. Instead, it includes such items as spinach tortellini with smoked salmon, monkfish with cucumber spaghetti and roast chicken with rosemary potatoes and aioli. (Prices are about $6 per basket, or $25 for a stack of five.) “As in the Mediterranean,” reads a note on the Tall Orders menu, “many of our dishes are designed to be eaten tiede.” Tiede, it might be noted, is fancy talk for “lukewarm.” “Designed,” I gather, is what old-fashioned sea-level chefs used to call “thought up.”

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ENDLESS DINNERS: Through the end of the month, La Toque on the Sunset Strip offers, in addition to its regular menu, its annual six-course truffle feast, which culminates with fresh truffle ice cream. This year, La Toque owner/chef Ken Frank will be featuring black truffles not only from France but also from Italy and Spain. The meal is $55 a head . . . . Cafe Pierre in Manhattan Beach offers a Garlic Lover’s Menu tonight: four courses for $30 per person . . . . Sacramento-based food and wine expert Darrell Corti will be the guest speaker at the Eclectic Palate Food and Wine Society’s “Italian Renaissance” dinner, Tuesday night at Bice in Beverly Hills. Five courses and seven wines will be featured, at $65. Call (213) 858-7424 for more information . . . . And cooking by “the Spago Alumni” will be featured Jan. 31 at a dinner honoring Wolfgang Puck and Barbara Lazaroff, hosted by the American Jewish Committee at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Tickets, $700 per couple. Call (213) 655-7071.


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