story

Vespertine Is America's Most Absurd and Audacious New Restaurant

Part performance art, part design piece, this LA eatery is breaking boundaries
October 22, 2017
·
by Kelly Dobkin

With a view of a perfectly full moon, I’m staring at a manzanita branch that is draped with some dubiously edible dried kelp which I can snap off and pop into my mouth. No, I’m not foraging for food in a seaside wilderness, I’m dining at LA's most avant-garde new tasting menu experience, Vespertine.

Part restaurant, part architectural design piece, part performance art, the new concept from chef Jordan Kahn (LA's Destroyer) consists of a meal in four acts, taking place inside a striking, modern building designed by Eric Owen Moss in Culver City’s Hayden Tract area, which Kahn cites as the inspiration behind the entire project.

Then there's the hype around it. Vespertine was billed in the press materials as “a place of cognitive dissonance that defies categorization” and “a place of shadows and whispers.” The Vespertine website even boasts an obscure movie trailer for this place, claiming that it seeks to “disrupt the course of the modern restaurant.”

It’s hard to know what any of this means, but all I knew for sure was, I had to try it for myself. So when I made a recent trip out to Los Angeles I made sure to secure a seat for myself and LA editor Lesley Balla at the $250-a-head experience (buy tickets via Tock).

Endive, smoked almond, gooseberry, rosehip and trout roe, photo by Stefanie Parkinson

The restaurant opened in July and by now, dozens of other reviews have been published, all of which have described Vespertine as “otherworldly” or “like eating in outer space.” Some have knocked its seemingly pleasureless “anti-restaurant” approach. I don’t want to be repetitive, but I must admit, it’s nearly impossible to describe Vespertine without talking about outer space, and/or the universe as we know it.

You will eat a piece of mango served in a stone monolith, and many other dishes served in charcoal grey stone spheres that look like tires or moon rocks. The female servers float around in floor-length kaftans that are straight from Star Trek, a Kate Bush video or Handmaid’s Tale (I’m not sure which). It definitely seems like the outer space theme is intentional. From the press release: “it is from a time that is yet to be, and a place that does not exist. It is a spirit that exists between worlds.” In other words, the future. My interpretation: It could be a preview into what a tasting menu restaurant looks like in a dystopian future (or a utopian one — depending on your point of view).

As a food writer you often coast in auto-pilot mode when describing a restaurant, since nearly every place you visit has a familiar point of reference…eg: ”a cozy, countryside trattoria vibe”….“A beachy seafood shack.” With Vespertine, there are absolutely no familiar categorizations or associations to be made. Most of the foods you warm to or associate with on some level harken back to childhood (there’s the famous scene in Ratatouille) or childhood meals out with your parents.

None of that is here. Most of the lexicon you use to describe restaurants is based on longstanding culinary traditions created by cultures who originated these culinary archetypes. The “culture” of person that created Vespertine is simply its chef, Jordan Kahn. Vespertine is less a restaurant than it is a piece of performance art created by a singular artist (or artists, if you consider the designer too).

Kahn himself has worked at some of the finest restaurants in the world including Per Se, The French Laundry and Alinea, so in some ways, this is the ultimate culmination and manifestation of his influences and artistic ability.

With all this in mind, here's the account of my and Lesley's culinary space ride together.

Jeff Elstone

Part One: The Arrival

When you pull up to Vespertine, you’re struck immediately by the bizarre beauty of the structure, it looks both serpentine and intergalactic. The building itself was the inspiration for the entire project, says Kahn, and what provides that feeling of otherworldliness that trickles down to the dining experience. “I suppose the term futuristic and otherworldly are largely the result of the building and its transportive nature,” he says. “For most restaurants, you get a black box... and you design around it and make it have a certain feel.  This place already had a feeling and an energy. Everything we’ve done has been in response to using the building as the armature and conduit of the experience.”

“It’s like a monolith waffle calling its beings home,” Lesley remarked to me of the design.

After parking you immediately hear the restaurant’s soundtrack (audible from outside) which pulsates from the glowing tower. (The ambient music is by Texas band This Will Destroy You and consists of 3-4 notes that repeat over and over.) It’s reminiscent of New Age spa music — whether intentional or not.

It’s the kind of music you might hear during a video documentary of the-once-a-year hatching of a rare bird.

You are greeted by a person who already knows your name and seemingly so much more. They guide you to the garden area to tables fashioned with telescopes that let you stare at the stars. 

I can’t help but want to start photographing and videotaping this entire thing.

We both try our best not to awkwardly giggle at this bizarre prologue. Vespertine is trying to make you uncomfortable, but at the same time...comfortable with the unfamiliar. It’s pushing you out of your comfort zone, which you have to admire. It’s the antithesis of hospitality in that regard. The garden is full of lights, stones, and beside it, a moat of sorts which appears to house jagged moon rocks. We are soon escorted inside to begin our journey.

Part Two: The Seaweed Lounge

Once inside the building, which has multiple levels, you’re directed to the elevator. I can’t remember which floor we arrived on, but when we got off, chef Jordan was waiting for us. Dressed in all black, with his asymmetrical longish black hair, he is smiling boyishly.

Jordan Kahn

His look is equal parts Trent Reznor and Rick Owens as he stops to greet us before we are escorted to the lounge area. Seems like Jordan has come a long way in his feelings about critics (he once famously kicked LA Times writer S. Irene Virbila out of his now-closed Red Medicine after outing her on social media). Through his smiles, he seems a bit nervous though. Not surprising — the man is definitely laying it all out on the line with this project.

He recently opened Destroyer which is located directly across the street from Vespertine, whose approach also aims for “disruption” (hence the name) — an all-day, plant-based menu that’s low priced, intricately plated and turns the idea of “comfort food” on its head.

But back to the meal. We barely make it down into the very low chairs (and nearly knock the table over in the process) before putting some thoughts together.

The bright full moon tonight (visible from the floor to ceiling glass windows in the lounge) makes this experience feel particularly otherworldly. Almost as if it was premeditated.

Female servers wearing the aforementioned kaftans (including the restaurant’s very friendly GM) and Jordan himself serve us. We are served a lightly alcoholic cocktail. 

I feels like we are being hypnotized...slowly.

We are brought four dishes during our time here. The first are curvy blades of kelp (dried chips of sorts) served hanging from a manzanita branch salvaged from a brush fire. At first we think the branch is merely a centerpiece, but realize after explanation that parts of it are edible. Kahn describes the dish as “somewhat not of this earth and yet very much of this earth.” The “can we eat it?” theme will repeat throughout the meal.

Jeff Elstone

Another is a burnt onion cookie of sorts with black currant, served inside a two-part stone vessel that looks like a mini tagine (pictured above). You have to pull it apart to eat the item inside.

Mango brined with pine and sunflower, photo by Stefanie Parkinson

Next is the aforementioned mango, brined with pine and sunflower served in a stone monolith that looks particularly striking. Kahn explains: “We were looking at the idea of a singular shape with a portion carved out and filled in to retain the original shape, but with an out of place puzzle piece type of effect.” This is actually one of the tastier dishes of the entire meal in that it’s just simply a really good piece of mango.

Cucumber custard, redwood ice, rambutan and almond praline, photo by Stefanie Parkinson

Part Three: The Ride

We now head back to the elevator to the second floor to eat the rest of the meal — 11 courses plus alcohol pairings (which will cost you another $200 pp for the full pairing, $125 for light pairings and $85 for non-alcoholic pairings). The room is hushed and timid when we arrive and relatively dark. But once Lesley and I start chatting (I’ll admit, we are pretty loud) the volume of the room seems to slowly increase. Thank god. This is a long amount of time to sit in semi awkward silence.

The parade of plates that followed were almost dizzying. (I actually got dizzy at one point thanks to jet lag and too much alcohol.) My personal favorite was one of the first dishes we were served: live scallop with smoked bone marrow, white asparagus, douglas fir broth and yarrow that's plated like a miniature map of a winter landscape. There are a few central themes to the plating here. One is shrouding — you will see this throughout Jordan’s cooking, even at Destroyer, this is a big one, which Lesley points out. The scallop is hidden by thin slices of asparagus. Later a piece of turkey is obscured by beautiful sheets of shaved rhubarb.

Caramelized lobster, quince, red spinach, photo by Stefanie Parkinson

Another big theme are circles and discs. Several of the dishes were anchored by a frozen disc in the center like the snap peas and kiwi. Others are served inside charcoal grey stone plates that look like tires. In some cases, you can’t see the food at all until you pull it out of the vessel, like the lobster dish, one of our least favorites. Presentation is so much a part of eating that it’s so difficult to remove that element entirely from the experience. Kahn describes this dish as the “anti presentation.” He says of it: “Placing a spoon into the void, the unknown, it shows a willingness and a participation on the side of the guest.” That’s a brilliant idea in theory but when it comes down to how the dish looked (once you pulled it out of the abyss-like plate) and tasted, your senses will overwhelm any notions of praise. The lobster has a slimy sauce which makes it appear like you’re eating meat from within the carcass of a just-killed animal. It’s profoundly unsettling.

This is a low point, whereas most of the rest of the experience is just somewhere in the middle. The dishes are striking and interesting, but most offering very dissonant flavors. And at a certain point, you will definitely get fatigued by the sheer length and intensity of the meal, and that will overwhelm a lot of the potential enjoyment one could take from it.

Part 4: Return to Earth

The garden is the final part of the experience ($30 per person extra to linger here). You’re guided back to the outdoor space from the beginning but to a slightly different setting, and seated on heated stone benches. It feels like you are being let out of the spaceship and released back onto earth. There are many elements of the meal that are deeply "terrestrial" like the use of various trees and tree parts throughout (lots of redwood) that remind you of your home planet. Now back at the beginning/end (note the circular theme again) plates of items that are questionably edible are put in front of you along with hot tea and burning incense. Lesley sums it up: “It’s like a cross between church and a spa. On Nebulon 9.”

Final thoughts — Vespertine will be much more interesting to art lovers than it will be to food lovers, at least for now. You will see some of the most exquisitely plated dishes of your life here —Jordan is truly an artist in that regard. And you have to admire just how out there this place is and just how far it pushes. But at the end of the day, we both wish we had actually enjoyed the flavors more, and without that you don’t really have the foundation of an enduring restaurant.

Or do you?

You will take what you want out of the experience, which was Kahn’s intention anyway. He tells us, “The energy you bring with you tends to become amplified during the experience. We don’t want everyone walking away feeling the same thing, quite the opposite actually. The experience is largely about discovery.”

“You really don’t quite know how you got there, but you can get in your car and think about it all the way back to your apartment,” Lesley recounts.

Back in NYC, two weeks later...and I’m still thinking about it. I think I’ve been in a fog ever since.

3599 Hayden Ave., Los Angeles; 323-320-4023

tasting menus
los angeles
vespertine