Immersive art moves out of the museum and onto your menu
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 carbonated 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 stark simplicity of the gustatory introduction, presented as an Addams Family topiary; giant kelp, sea lettuce and samphire with a dip of turkey drippings, pike caviar and honey, accompanied by a redwood- and high desert pine-infused vermouth. Chef Kahn is an avid forager who delights in raiding LA’s microclimate-rich wilderness.
An eon 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 edgeless perfection of Vespertine’s theatrics. A savory, sunflower covered rice pudding rests on trout roe at the bottom of a heavy ceramic vessel whose sides are decorated with endive glued in place with almond butter. Caramelized salsify is wrapped in pleasantly acrid garlic leather. Raw scallop slivers hide under meticulously shaved asparagus that mimics translucent flower petals dotted with wild fennel fronds. The dish is punched up with yuzu, pine and smoked bone marrow, as well as bacon-like bits of caramelized scallop.
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. Is it LA’s best restaurant? No, but it’s certainly 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. Given time Kahn’s cuisine is bound to find it’s footing, away from the purely conceptual, toward something truly personal and even more envelope-pushing. The cellar-dirt funky, sea urchin dessert with lemongrass-infused frozen cream and preserved walnuts proves that he’s almost there.