Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Review of Checkers, Damansara Heights - A Trip Down Memory Lane

I was back in KL last week after a long absence, and to catch up with my friend, KL's premier straight-talking food blogger Brian Mack.  It was hard to believe that I hadn't seen Brian since December last year.  Ever the inveterate traveller, he had done something like three separate European trips since our last encounter (I lost count), and both of us were looking for some old-fashioned comfort food.  His choice?  Checkers Restaurant at Damansara Heights.

Looking at Checkers, it certainly reminds you of the restaurant that time forgot.  Set up by its owner Mr Tan back in 1996 (or so Brian reckons) in this exact same shophouse near the Damansara town centre, it's an instagrammer's nightmare: unflattering lighting, cheap plastic chairs, incredibly plain, white decor and large plates full of even bigger food which don't look particularly well-plated.

Brian's usually a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, but here at Checkers, he is clearly in his element, in his happy place.  He says he and his partner the Lenglui (her nom de guerre  over at Brian's blog) have been frequenting Checkers since 1997.  Indeed, Mr Tan greets Brian by name, although after two decades, Brian still calls him "Mr Tan".  I feel incredibly comfortable here too: there was a time not too long ago when almost every restaurant in Ipoh looked like this, when what was on the plate counted for more than "do I look fat in this light" light or how many  tattoos the goddamned chef had on his forearms or, God forbid, his neck.

Anyways, so we were both seated and sipping on Brian's very welcome contribution of a 2011 Santenay, when Mr Tan brought these to the table:

Hors d'oeuvres: Cherry Tomatoes coated with Butter Caramel and Sesame Seeds

An unusual, some would say downright weird, combination to start a meal, but down the gullet in one bite it went anyway.  If anything, it reminded me a lot of the famous Almond Roca candies, the nuttiness of the sesame seeds doing an admirable job standing in for the Roca's crushed almonds.  The light tartness of the tomatoes tried valiantly to cut the more-ishness of the buttery caramel, but the final impression is of richness and sweetness.

Entrée: "Expensive Mushrooms"

This menu names this dish, apparently sans irony, as "Expensive Mushrooms".  I don't recall them being that expensive (around RM 22 for quite a decent serving), and from what I could identify, we had shimeji mushrooms, fresh Chinese mushrooms and eryngii mushrooms stir-fried with parsley and chilli flakes and garlic.  Good.

Main Course: "Porky's Best"

We got what you see in the picture, really, and there's not much more to say.  The marinade was very good, very much on the sweeter side as this was an American-style preparation, but the meat was tender and wasn't overwhelmed by the marinade.  I thought it very nice that a myriad of vegetables was provided on the side, again, another throwback to the past when sides were complimentary and you didn't have supplements charged for every single item which wasn't described on the menu.  The preparation methods were old-school too; in this day and age, when mashed potatoes need to be apparently pushed through ricers or forced through fine muslin, an ice-cream scoop of pommes puree sat there, proud, craggy and slightly lumpy.  It certainly wasn't the best mash I have had by any stretch,  it was in fact rather ordinary, albeit it worked perfectly fine as a nostalgic element.  Good.

Dessert: Mississippi Mudcake

Again, this was a dish a bit lost in time.  The mudcake did not have the richness in texture or flavour which even its fellows at mid-market eateries are offering.  It is OK, but nothing more.


I like Checkers.  It harks back to a more innocent time, when not every teenage girl had a camera, a blog / twitter / instagram account (or all of the aforesaid), when "celebrity chefs" were bona fide actors who pretended to cook for the occasional TV special, when dining out was an excuse for people to get together and be human, not to humblebrag or grandstand about their encyclopaedic knowledge of food (I know, I know...).

But equally, one cannot deny that we are eating much better than ever, and that those social media drivers are providing a real impetus on quality improvement.  There is a lot more inventiveness on the part of chefs, and more effort from restaurants to set themselves apart from the other.  Of course, effort, especially in today's attention-whoring dining scene, does not necessarily equate to results, but I would recognise recent developments as a positive, on balance.

The food at Checkers is not magnificent.  It is not trying to be, and no one paying the prices it charges should have any reasonable expectation that it would be.  It serves decent, no-frills food made (mostly) with quality ingredients, at decent, no-frills prices (I don't set out the prices of each dish in this blog as Brian fooled me and managed to pick up the bill again without me knowing, damn him!), in a decent, no-frills ambience.  There is clearly demand for this formula, as the almost-packed crowd on a Tuesday evening attests.  The recent revival of interest in "dude food" and the related instant-gratification, a little-cholesterol-is-now-ok attitude would not have done anything to damage Checkers' recent popularity.

Brian tells me that Mr Tan is a talented cook himself, and that in past years, he was able to whip up a more complex menu for a big enough group and with sufficient notice.  I'm not sure if he still does this, but it might be worth asking.

Back to the food and the evening?  I walked out with a smile on my face, and the feeling that I had had something worth eating.   In this day and age, that is not something we can take for granted.

19 Lorong Setiabistari 2 
Damansara Heights 

Kuala Lumpur 
+60 3-2095 3304
Reservations recommended.  Please dial ahead to enquire about corkage; we were not charged any, but Brian is a two-decade veteran customer, so...

1 comment:

  1. Haha!! Glad you enjoyed the food! You can pay next time :D
    Agree that we are eating better as a result of Instagram etc but a lot of the newbies don't seem to last. May be something to do with the premium they seem to want us punters to bear for swank and trendy. Give me a Checkers big rib well cooked every time - total slice of old school porky heaven.
    All best wishes to you and family for Xmas and look to catch up soon in the New Year!
    PS did the license get sorted?