If you wanted to present a case study for the drastic revolution in the rules of the restaurant business, you might use the recent career of chef Jordan Kahn as Exhibit A. Specifically, you might compare and contrast his last venture — the flashy, ambitious Red Medicine — with his new restaurant, Destroyer.
Despite the fact that Red Medicine was seen as a rule breaker, it followed all the conventions long considered the keys to success: a prominent location in a wealthy neighborhood, a cadre of well-known investors, a dramatic build-out, lots of PR, celebrity clientele, beautiful food, long hours focusing on dinner and late night. Red Medicine did everything right, and it seemed befitting of Kahn, a chef who had come up in some of the most prestigious restaurants in the country, including French Laundry, Per Se and Alinea. Except that it didn't work — not for long, anyway. Red Medicine closed after four years of operation.
Destroyer, in many ways, is the polar opposite. It follows a new set of rules that seem contradictory to the idea of success and longevity but might just be the future of restaurants: Pick an odd, out-of-the-way location with no parking; pare down your build-out to absolute basics; open on the days and at the times that suit you — ignore dinner and weekends altogether if you like. Cook whatever the hell you want.
If these rules seem counterintuitive, it's because they are. But they also have worked for some of L.A.'s biggest successes over the past few years. Sqirl is the most obvious example, opening on a random corner in Virgil Village and quickly becoming a national obsession. Baroo, too, takes its cues from this playbook. Even Gjusta, which admittedly required far more money to realize, given the breadth of its ambition and menu, can be seen as adhering to the new formula: odd location, not much parking, very little seating (even less when it opened). But have you been to Gjusta on a Saturday? The wait just to order a sandwich, one you likely will have to eat standing up or squished at a rickety table with strangers, can easily surpass an hour.
It's possible that, outside of the rare Bestia-level success, restaurants like Red Medicine are simply no longer viable. It's possible that Destroyer and its ilk are the future.
Should we be dismayed by this new normal, or excited? It depends, very much, on what's important to you as a diner. If you're in it for the grand pageantry of it all, for the room and the service and the pampering, you will not like Destroyer or the future it represents. If you're in it for the food alone, you're gonna be aight.
The restaurant is located in Culver City's Hayden Tract, surrounded by the industrial buildings and Eric Owen Moss' crazy architecture for which that area is known, and it caters mainly to the many workers from nearby architecture, design and startup offices. The small indoor space fits right in with the neighborhood: so minimalist as to be severe. The short daily menu is projected onto the wall; you order at a counter, behind which the small kitchen is in full view.
Kahn has always been known for his visually stunning food, at Red Medicine (where dishes were as likely to turn up in goldfish bowls as on plates) but also prior to that, when he was Michael Mina's corporate pastry chef. That hasn't changed here, despite the fact that Destroyer is basically a futuristic cafe where office workers come to get coffee and oatmeal. But the coffee is from San Francisco's Coffee Manufactory, and the oatmeal comes raw and crunchy in a beautiful, white bowl with drifts of red currant, perfect for Instagram, as is just about everything here. In fact, Destroyer's stark background, heavy, earthy ceramics and meticulously artful platings might make it the most Instagrammable restaurant in the known universe. According to the new rulebook, that's an important attribute.
Much of Kahn's food is built on the premise of layers, in his flavors and also the literal way he builds dishes. Chicken confit comes in a wide bowl under a blanket of charred cabbage leaves and a flurry of cheese. The bottom layer is a mix of yogurt and hazelnuts, and the meaty, oily in-the-best-way-possible chicken combines with the cabbage funk and luxury of dairy and nuttiness of the hazelnuts for a dish that's just straight-up delicious, as well as being thrilling on a creative level.
Cauliflower soup is a layering of white upon white upon white: A warm, thick, creamy soup (made without the benefit of actual cream) is poured into a large, cream-colored, heavy ceramic bowl over hunks of cauliflower that have been cooked to a softness that is only barely more structured than the soup itself. To contrast, there are crunchy elements as well — one day it might be puffed rice and almond bits, another, gloriously-crispy frizzles of chicken skin. Beef tartare, bound by smoked egg cream, comes under a plated armor of perfectly arranged radishes, with sprigs of dill at the edge for frondy visual appeal.
Despite the pointed modernism of this food, most of its underlying pleasure is actually built on comfort. A loose rice porridge that comes beneath a carpet of tiny broccoli flowers is pure edible warmth, teetering at the edge of bitterness here and there but brought back to nourishing comfort by the sweetness of onions that have been singed just so. This is cerebral food, but it also speaks to your more emotional needs.
What is sacrificed with this new model of dining? Service. Convenience. Comfort. Finding parking anywhere near Destroyer is a nearly impossible task. Most of the seating is outdoors on benches at tables where the previous guest's detritus is often not removed until long after you've arrived. While a huge amount of attention has been paid to the gorgeous vessels in which the food is presented, you'll be using disposable, plastic silverware to dip into those ceramic bowls. One day, we ordered a dessert but it never came. We got up and left, having forgotten all about it. I was in my car, blocks away, by the time I remembered.
We drove back and ran in to grab it to-go. In the car, we sat and dipped our plastic spoons into the container, through a mantle of crunchy, toasty, ethereal almond shavings, into a creamy, Icelandic yogurt that presented more like silken custard, finally hitting a layer of sweet/tart rhubarb at the bottom.
In that instant, with all that deliciousness on my plastic spoon, I didn't care where I was sitting or how much of a pain it had been to get to that moment. If the future of dining is food so singular and expressive that it transcends comfort and setting, then so be it. I was just happy that Kahn had found a way to make the food he wants to make, and that I had found a way to eat it.
DESTROYER | Three stars | 3578 Hayden Ave, Culver City | destroyer.la | Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. | Plates, $6-$16 | No alcohol | Scant street parking