View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "Red Medicine: Jordan Kahn's Vietnamese Canteen."
If you were to have stumbled into Red Medicine this winter, maybe late after a movie, maybe with a reservation you booked two weeks early on OpenTable, you might have encountered a dish called "early season roots and legumes," unpromisingly enough, an appetizer that sounds like something more often served at a Tarzana vegan café than at an advanced fleshpot of cuisine. When the waitress suggests it, your shrug speaks less of pleasure than of resignation, the way it does when you realize an izakaya waiter is going to bring you edamame whether you care for boiled soybeans or not. But then the dish arrives — a large white bowl, mostly empty, holding ... what? An avant-garde flower arrangement? A miniature bonsai? A garnish for soup that is yet to come?
A bouquet of Vietnamese herbs — sawtooth, rau ram, Vietnamese basil, fuzzy white cilantro flowers, acrid fish mint — erupts from a fluffy soil probably made from dehydrated walnuts, anchored by a splotch of emulsified walnut oil and curled around a roasted purple parsnip, maybe a carrot or two, no larger than Q-tips. There is a tart, yellow wood-sorrel blossom, a few tight, pink curls of ham, and a single baby pea pod split and splayed like a detail from a Arcimboldo painting. The bowl is placed in the middle of the table — pretty much everything at Red Medicine is served communally — but it takes long seconds before anybody dares to disturb the composition with a chopstick. It is a dish as easily comprehended by its beauty, or by its surprisingly sharp scent, as by its taste.
Yet when you do breach the picture plane, picking apart the vegetables one by one, the flavors are green, fresh and complex, roasted sugariness intertwining with delicate nuttiness, leaves playing in and around one another, until a single, plangent note arises: the sweetness of earliest spring miraculously in the middle of winter. Most of the components are Vietnamese, or can at least be found somewhere in Vietnamese cooking, but the effect has nothing to do with either the earthy, rowdy preparations you might taste in Vietnam or even Vietnam in the popular imagination, any more than Monet's paintings of water lilies relate to actual China. What chef Jordan Kahn is doing here, the way he is approaching what he calls a Vietnamese canteen, is new, less an interpretation of the cuisine than an artist finding new paints to work with, new brushes to use.
Red Medicine, most famous for unmasking and ejecting the L.A. Times restaurant critic in its earliest weeks, is still more discussed in gossip columns than it is in food circles, and a lot of people who couldn't pick Wolfgang Puck out of a police lineup have strongly held opinions about the place. I suspect Kahn was expecting a big surge of chefs coming in after their shifts (the bar is open until 2 a.m.), which seems not yet to have materialized. The restaurant — its location on what has been a cursed restaurant corner, an early logo that included a portrait of despot Ho Chi Minh, a name drawn from that of the least listenable Fugazi album, a level of appropriation that tends to piss off local Vietnamese — quickly became a figure of fun.
But Red Medicine deserves to be known for unusual cocktails; for its list of obscure high-acid wines that go perfectly with the sweetish, herbacious cuisine; and for its food — Kahn's cooking is probably the most modern in Los Angeles at the moment. And if you pick your way through the menu, and ignore what the dishes happen to be called, you will find that most of them are stunning. When you order the chaud-froid, a rich French-style pâté similar to rillettes, you are served not a quivering pinky-gray blob but a tiny cast-iron cocotte filled with an arrangement of frilly mustard leaves and wood sorrel flowers that looks like the prettiest four square inches of the forest floor. The pâté, hiding underneath, is excellent. If you try the cured amberjack, filets of the mackerel relative come rolled into tiny turbans in a bowl glazed with tart, chilled broth scented with pine and surrounded by baby root vegetables, tops sliced off and hairy tails in the air, that look like a garden out of Dr. Seuss.
"Chicken dumplings" turn out to be airy, Vietnamese-spiced nem, meatballs, glazed with caramelized sugar, to be folded into leaves of butter lettuce with fried shallots and Vietnamese pickles, then dipped into house-made sriracha chile sauce. Bánh mì are basically crisp foie gras canapes that resemble the namesake sandwich only in their garnish of hot peppers and vinegared carrot shreds, but are pretty spectacular nonetheless. Bay scallops share a bowl with minuscule braised turnips, a lemony beurre blanc and dabs of sea buckthorn jelly, a dish closer to Copenhagen than to Hanoi.
This is the part where I'm supposed to tell you about the constructions that don't quite work, and there are more than a few of them. The fried brick of sweet potato strands could pass for the Vietnamese equivalent of the Bloomin' Onion, and the tart kohlrabi rolls with grapefruit are notable mostly for the unpleasant connotations of dribbling tofu cream. The green papaya salad and crisp crab spring roll are pretty close to standard Thai takeout.
It is easy to order too much here, and you will be overwhelmed if you ignore the rule of five — three small courses, one large course and one vegetable (roasted kabocha with burnt onion and chrysanthemum leaves!) for two people.
But there is too much to love here, and too many reasons to return: boiled peanuts with Brussels sprouts and pickled rose petals topped with a gooey poached backyard egg, often laid just before service, that collapses into a rich sauce; fried sweetbreads taking the place of chicken in a traditional Vietnamese curry served with a crisp baguette; soft, long-cooked pork, lacquered black with caramel, alongside a snowfield of powdered almonds; and the bits of hen, also in Vietnamese caramel, expressive of the mild gaminess of the bird.
Kahn's "early season roots and legumes" has a precedent, of course: the famous gargouillou of French chef Michel Bras, a ballet of 30 or more vegetables, fruits, nuts, mushrooms and herbs laid sparingly on a plate, often with crumbly chef-made "soil," that expresses the season and the locale with surgical precision. It is the keystone of what I like to think of as narrative cuisine, a dish that forces the diner to come to terms with the sense of place as she navigates her way through it. René Redzepi serves a version of gargouillou at his Noma in Copenhagen, often called the best restaurant in the world. David Kinch does a gargouillou at Manresa in Los Gatos; Michael Voltaggio did one at the Langham in Pasadena. Gargouillou is to the new breed of chef what the supremely filthy "aristocrats" joke was to old-line comics: an improvisational framework that displays their virtuosity to the highest possible extent. And I can't wait to see how Kahn's Vietnamese-inflected version slouches into full, green spring.
RED MEDICINE: 8400 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (323) 651-5500, redmedicinela.com. Dinner Tues.-Sat., 6 p.m.-mid.; bar and bar menu nightly until 2 a.m. All major credit cards acepted. Full bar. Adjacent lot parking. Small dishes $8-$16, "protein" $9-$21. Recommended dishes: cured amberjack, pork chaud-froid, chicken dumplings, early season legumes and roots.