Review: There is expensive, abstract, high-concept dining and then there is Vespertine — where a meal can easily run $500 per person and the entire experience is intentionally joyless.
It turns out that Vespertine, L.A.’s newest, most expensive and feverishly anticipated fine-dining hotspot, specializes in depressive haute cuisine. Fully inhabiting the Zeitgeist of the city’s moneyed cognoscenti — fueled by Zoloft and Xanax, obsessed with the hostilities of Trump and climate change — it presents itself as a citadel of monastic-apocalyptic meditation, rejecting the age-old ideal of special-occasion restaurant as place of celebration.
The pedigreed 34-year-old chef Jordan Kahn — who worked under Thomas Keller at Per Se, Grant Achatz at Alinea and Michael Mina at West Hollywood’s late XIV — made his name with the short-lived Red Medicine near the edge of Beverly Hills. There, his nominally modernist-Vietnamese dishes were known for their visually stunning terrarium aesthetic. Less memorable was their taste; often muddled and overcomplicated.
More recently, in a postindustrial tract of Culver City that lately has become populated by entertainment and tech firms (including Beats, Anonymous Content and Maker Studios), he quietly opened Destroyer: a counter-service, lunch-only purveyor of what he calls “rustic comfort food” and what everyone else would decipher as his fancified (and reasonably priced) take on the town’s current obsession: healthy stuff served in bowls. He offers, among other wonders, an exquisite, addictive rice porridge with caramelized broccoli, puffed rice and burnt onion — flavors distinct yet melding, textures pristine — well worth visiting from afar.
Since July 6, Vespertine has brooded across the street in a freestanding four-level tower, a flowy curtain of waffled, reddish steel designed by the noted avant-garde architect Eric Owen Moss. (Last month in GQ Kahn guilelessly compared the restaurant’s building to “a machine artifact from an extraterrestrial planet that was left here like a billion years ago by a species that were moon worshippers.”) As a meal on the fourth night of service begins, the chef welcomes each diner as an elevator deposits guests in the kitchen. He softly inquires about allergies, requests all patrons abstain from Instagramming the food in order to remain in the moment (“This experience is about drifting”) and asks for understanding as the kitchen finesses toward intended perfection. (Not the kind of preemptive apology anyone wants to hear after already forking over at least $250 per person for an advance online reservation “ticket” — which excludes tax, service and various check-multiplying supplemental charges for flights of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks that are highly encouraged. The Hollywood Reporter’s final tab for two was $995.23.)
The meal begins on the rooftop, seated in futuristic lounge chairs and gazing at the dusk as an atmospheric instrumental score suffuses a doomy gloom. (It’s not a surprise to learn that the same composers provided music for World War Z.) Assuming the position of the iconic 1980s blown-away guy from the Maxell audio cassette ad, you accept hors d’oeuvres like a glistening, refreshing bit of crystalline ice plant with lime mist presented on or in minimalist ceramic sculptured dishware by Japanese potter Ryota Aoki, whose baffling forms — such as hollowed-out tire shapes filled with artful shmears of sustenance — call to mind well-meaning and unreturnable house gifts from the aliens in Arrival.
Before long you’re ushered into the main dining room below. It’s a regrettable arrangement, the eight booths clustered too close together and facing inward in a panopticon that minimizes privacy, views and general serenity while maximizing the opportunity to hear the folks at the next table loudly holding forth on, in turn, the science of human life extension, how this experience compares to Alinea and the financing hassles they are experiencing on their current film project. To the austere music, the young servers glide around in goth-tribal-hypebeast attire, sweet yet pinched in their performative formality, fussy in their cool detachment as they pour water from pitchers that look like 25th century shofars and proffer dishes with occasional Mona Lisa smiles and gnomically brief identifiers (e.g., “macrocystis pyrifera,” employing the scientific term for kelp for a sea-centered plating).
A high point throughout are the drinks. Wine director Terence Leavey’s pairings, under the most challenging and idiosyncratic conditions, are adroit, while the non-alcoholic flight of juices and teas (from honeydew-and-sorrel to oolong-and-elderflower to sparkling redwood) is a revelation of arcing subtlety, balance and buoyancy.
The quality of the cooking itself is, at the moment, mixed. Nearly every dish is, as can be expected from Kahn, otherworldly beautiful, delicate in its layered structural composition. But he trips himself up by relentlessly straining to impress his black-belt-foodie audience through the employment of the most obscure ingredients possible (say, balsam fir tips) in ways that too often don’t cohere into a whole (tortuously pairing them with iced kiwi and snap peas in a fashion that did neither any favors). Dishes also suffer issues of basic technique, such as a slice of roast turkey that’s lovingly delivered in a wrapping of fine rhubarb stalks but is heat-lamp dry. Sometimes, though, moments of envisioned awe manifest themselves, as with a preparation of sea urchins, dates and walnuts hidden under a tiny dome of powdered white lemongrass. While perhaps a hint too sweet, it verged on the spectacular.
The cumulative sensorial effect — dinner lasts four hours — is unique. Since the global advent of molecular gastronomy, top-tier international chefs like Ferran Adria at the lodestar El Bulli and Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park (as well as those operating locally such as Michael Voltaggio at Ink and Jose Andres at The Bazaar) have offset its distancing esotericism with a jubilancy of spirit, a sense of play.
Whether objectionable or commendable, there’s no apparent fun and joy at Vespertine. It possesses an earnest, ambitious commitment to cerebral experimentation and holds surprisingly little regard for the conventional pleasures of dining, fine or otherwise. It’s admirably gone its own way, a rare feat, conjuring an end-of-the-world vibe with food as its central expressive language, glorying in its uncompromising, punishing aesthetic. It’s the restaurant analog to the oeuvre of the bleak auteur Michael Haneke.
And as with Haneke, it’s going to be love or hate for would-be patrons, even those who can get past its many moments of self-parody to engage without rolling their eyes. But Vespertine will likely find its audience, particularly among the anhedonic jetsetters who traipse from Modena to Melbourne, checking off their World’s 50 Best restaurant list, in search of a new high — or in this case a purposeful, mournful new low.
For decades now chefs have sought to exalt food to the pantheon of art. If nothing else, Kahn has created a dirge you can eat.
THE BOTTOM LINE Polarizing, ambitious, stumbling haute cuisine for melancholy aesthetes.
Chef Jordan Kahn
3599 Hayden Ave., Culver City | Phone: 323.320.4023
Reservations online through Tock
Dinner only, beginning at $250 per person