Here's a partial list of the subjects discussed during my meals at Vespertine: The nature of boredom. The value of discomfort. Performance art — specifically how the intent of the performance artist relates to the experience of the audience. Lunar magnificence.
I assume that it would please Jordan Kahn, the chef behind Vespertine, that his project spurs such contemplation in its customers; there may never have been an American restaurant with such metaphysical aspirations. In the words of Vespertine's marketing materials, it is "a gastronomical experience seeking to disrupt the course of the modern restaurant." Kahn said ahead of opening that the food would be inspired by architecture, astronomy and the music of John Cage.
The architecture part, at least, makes sense — this is a restaurant that began with a building. Years ago, when he was still the chef at Red Medicine, Kahn became obsessed with one of the fantastical buildings designed by architect Eric Owen Moss in the Hayden Tract of Culver City, a four-story glass structure with an exoskeleton of undulating red metal.
Eventually Kahn met Moss, and the two devised a plan to devote that entire building to Vespertine, a project as ridiculous and divisive and ambitious as a restaurant can be. A meal here, at minimum, costs well over $300 per person. Kahn has dreamt up for Vespertine an extraterrestrial mythology, a fictitious framework that makes eating here as much performance art as it is dinner. There's a soundtrack that follows you throughout the evening, which sounds less like music and more like the universe shifting its astral gears. There are aspects of the meal that are absolutely meant to unnerve you rather than delight you.
But there is some very real delight to be had. Upon arrival, guests are put into an elevator, which opens onto a visage of bright light silhouetting Kahn, who welcomes each diner with a kind of elfin joy. Behind him, you catch a glimpse of the gleaming minimalist kitchen before being escorted up to the roof deck for snacks and a glass of white vermouth crowned by an ornately psychedelic passion fruit flower. The glass walls make for a box of sunshine, which changes hues as the sun sets. You can see for miles around. The Culver City crows swoop over the landscape in great black drifts. The moon rises. It is quite astonishing, and it puts you in a mood that aligns with the golden light all around you.
So why was it that five or so hours later, after my first meal at Vespertine, I went home and railed at my husband about how frustrated I was, about the lost potential, about how some of the meal felt quite like torture? Once I'd been led down from the roof and into the stark dining room, my golden mood shifted slowly toward darkness. The service was so blank and stark and cold: waiters in black sacks shuffling toward you, laying down a dish and whispering preciously, "egg yolk and osha," then backing away slowly, never breaking cyborg character.
The food was impressive in its approximation of what it might mean to eat on another planet, and not necessarily in a good way. There was a repetitive quality to the meal — many dishes had some kind of gel, a frozen thing and a dusting of bitter green powder. And there was so much of it all, dish after dish after dish. I felt trapped and full two hours before the meal ended. By the time the dessert courses began to arrive — which were arguably the best bites of the evening, crumbling drifts of tart fruit things and sweet smudges that made more sense than much of what came before — I was too worn out to enjoy them.
And there were some instances in which I felt Kahn was simply in over his head, from a cooking standpoint. A dish described by our cyborg waitress as "crab meat, clover," was a morass of outrageously salty crab meat. A bright green ice diamond made from the essence of snap peas came apart in large icy shards, like the spiky interior of Superman's fortress of solitude, and eating those shards was an immensely unpleasurable textural experience. It grated on my teeth and on my soul. Surely, I thought, there must be some technique by which the thing could be frozen to break open in a more uniform, softer, less jagged manner to reveal its innards of tiny peas and kiwi fruit.
I thought about how the best chefs, the ones who get away with charging $300 per person, have amazing ideas and then hone them and refine them and don't serve a thing until it's perfect. I wondered if Kahn had ever actually tried to sit through the meal himself, to see how it felt to eat that much, to experience the effect of so many bitter powders, so many similar and off-putting textures. I wondered where his generosity as a cook had gone, his ability to provide comfort and pleasure alongside wild creativity. I had seen that spirit from this chef in the past — it's on full display at Destroyer, his breakfast and lunch cafe right across the street. But at Vespertine, his welcome at the elevator was by far the warmest, most generous component of the evening.
At the end of the meal, we were led outside to the garden, where we sat on concrete benches that radiated heat and drank a selection of strident digestifs from elegant glass carafes. The discordant sonic groan followed us out, and the moon hung perfectly over the hulking geometry of the building. It was strange and beautiful and calming, but not so much so that it salvaged the experience.
A month later, not much had changed — but somehow a few small shifts made a universe of difference. The service was almost imperceptibly warmer, but it was enough to humanize the experience — which as a result was less alien, the spell of the performance broken. But it also was less silly and more comfortable and ... better.
There was less food, fewer courses, smaller portions. The dishes were more distinct, less likely to run together in your mind as one long series of gels with powder on top. Some of the best items remained, or got better. Here, still, was a bizarre and ingenious take on chips and dip: a crackly swoop of dried giant kelp (served inside a stone circle that looked like a gothic giant’s wedding ring) along with a creamy substance dotted with wild fennel flowers. The creamy stuff is an emulsion of yuzu and sea lettuce with whipped honey gathered by the ocean, infused with the salinity of the bees and wildflowers that thrive near the sand.
One of the strangest and most disconcerting dishes has not gone anywhere: a bowl lacquered with a black, grainy, skinlike layer that feels like a membrane against your knife and your teeth, and that gives way to a layer of raw halibut with green strawberries. But its weirdness is interesting rather than nefarious when it's followed by a series of dishes designed for beauty and pleasure. Live scallops brined in verbena splay across the plate with shaved white asparagus. A paste of raw oats and walnut milk underneath is like an odd health-food foil to the lush sweetness of the scallop, but it works. The interior of a bowl comes dotted with petals from wild yucca flowers, held to the side of the ceramic by smoked almond cream. At the bottom of the bowl is a generous dollop of golden Osetra caviar. It's playful, gorgeous and delicious.
The slight change in tone, both in the service and in the food, makes for an experience that feels much more generous. And fun.
On the other hand, people who come to Vespertine looking for the promise of a restaurant that turns the very act of dining on its head might now be disappointed. My original meal at Vespertine really did have the quality of eating on another planet. The food was unfamiliar but repetitive; there was very little to ground it, very few reference points to give you any reassurance that what you were eating came from a plant or animal of Earth. The service was so stilted and soulless it verged on unintentional comedy. Fascinating? Yes. A good time? Not quite.
Kahn might be in a bit of a bind: Either Vespertine is not weird enough, or it's so weird that it ceases to be fun. Does dinner need to be fun? I'd say so. There will always be an audience for truly revolutionary art, including art that isn't wholly comfortable or pleasant. But attempting avant-garde performance art as a sustainable business model rather than a limited-run series of events is more than ambitious — it's foolhardy.
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Vespertine may indeed be a foolhardy exercise. Even with its still-evolving turn toward pleasure, this is a profoundly weird and profoundly expensive restaurant. But if I let go of all the chatter and philosophy, if I judge it without any expectation of radical disruption, Vespertine, as it is today, emerges in a clearer light: as a flawed but thrilling meal, as a stunning act of creativity and as a singular Los Angeles experience.
VESPERTINE | 3599 Hayden Ave., Culver City | (323) 320-4023 | vespertine.la | Tue.-Sat., 5:30-9:30 p.m. | Tasting menus start at $250 per person, plus 20 percent service charge | Beer and wine | Valet parking