At the intersection of fine dining and conceptual art
Claim to fame: Both hailed and trashed for its highly conceptual take on fine dining
Reason to go: The most unique culinary experience in the USA
To look out for: Play your cards right and you might be treated to ethereal, house-made digestifs, rounding off your meal in the garden
By night a film noir set: The Hayden Tract area of Culver City, a desolate stretch of low-slung warehouses, crowned by architect Eric Owen Moss’ dramatically lit steel- and glass sculpture, aka Vespertine. It’s all vaguely eerie, which only adds to the enigmatic experience. Stepping out of our Uber we’re greeted by name and led to a rambling yet perfectly landscaped, Japanese:esque garden at the foot of this space-aged, four-level building that houses Jordan Kahn’s restaurant and curiously, nothing else. A moment’s pause to “land” and turn off reality, seated on a heated concrete bench, under a starry sky with a glass of birch juice, listening to a contemporary version of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, an atonal sound carpet that mesmerizes and transports us.
The amuse-portion of the menu is served on the top floor of Moss’ torqued fantasy, with sweeping views of parking lots and industrial malaise. That dissonant tune (designed by the Texas post-rock band This Will Destroy You) has changed, it’s now a repetitive litany that magically enhances the starkness of the gustatory introduction, presented as an Addams Family topiary; ethereal, dehydrated giant kelp and sea lettuce are crunchy, saline breaths of ocean mist draped over a sinewy tree branch, served w a lick-the-bowl-tasty, fermented chickpea-, yuzu- and oxtail dip. Bright, juicy desert mango is a jelly-glistening bijou, gilded with desert marigold petals; it’s been brined in resin scraped from the stem of said marigold. A savory cookie of black currant-slicked roasted yeast and almonds hides under a bouquet of wildflowers that have been painstakingly tweezed into place. We’re squarely in the heart of LA’s urban landscape, yet we’ve effectively been teleported straight to the wilderness. Chef Kahn is an avid forager who delights in raiding LA’s microclimate-rich environs.
An eon later, or maybe it was merely 15 minutes later, we’re invited down to the dimly lit dining room, time is a black hole at Vespertine. No use in being in any hurry here, we’re savoring a piece of immersive performance art, more conceptual “happening” than traditional fine dining.
Yet again the musical score has changed, we’re now wrapped in a third soundscape. Much like these minimalistic melodies with their continual three-four chords, Kahn’s menu includes repetitive themes; emulsions and smears, umami and burnt notes, flower petals and petal-like shapes, as well as a bevy of foraged exotica. All play on and off throughout the 18-course odyssey. Texture is used sparingly, as if to intensify the ambient notion and the perfection of Vespertine’s theatrics. A silky rice pudding rests on trout roe at the bottom of a heavy ceramic vessel whose sides are decorated with radish, glued in place with almond butter. Herb-strewn, raw scallop slivers quiver on top of a salted plum paste, the lot dusted with a green, burnt onion- and yeast meringue, mimicking a moss landscape. The dish is punched up with unctuous, rendered smoked bone marrow. Squab is a drama in two acts; breast barbequed, glazed with quince reduction and ditto vinegar, wrapped in juniper and smoked; leg grilled crispy, glazed with rose vinegar and dressed in wild rose petals, the latter paired with a pleasantly musty black trumpet mushroom tea.
The genteel staff serves each dish like a riddle, without too much fanfare, leaving it up to the diner to decipher what’s what in the custom, brutalist ceramics that make the Zalto stemware look weightless. Sommelier Terence Leavey anchors the glasses with deft pairings, ranging from ultra-craft beers courtesy of Chicago microbreweries, via suave old- and new world wines, to the revelatory skin-contact rarity Blood Orange from Central Coast Group Project and the ka-pow Rivesaltes 1933 from Domaine Cazes. Equally impressive is Leavey’s non-alcoholic flight of infusions and juices, a gorgeous study in subtlety, acidity and balance.
Chef Kahn, who’s solid CV includes Alinea, Per Se and The French Laundry, has created a gutsy, emotionally bombastic eatery. It’s without a doubt one of the country’s most innovative and thought-provoking dining experiences, one that stayed with us for a long time and comes back to haunt us with whiffs of pure genius. Case in point: the cellar-dirt funky, sea urchin dessert with lemongrass-infused frozen cream and crystalized walnuts.