Chef Jordan Kahn offers a very unique, one-of-a-kind dining experience at his new Culver City restaurant Vespertine. It's a must-eat meal for food experience collectors. You know who you are.
When a big blockbuster movie comes out, I scan the reviews but often stop after the first few sentences. Once I make the determination that the movie sounds good and I want to see it, I don't want to know anything else because I want to be surprised. I wanted to do the same thing when Jordan Kahn's new restaurant Vespertine opened, but I wasn't entirely successful.
I scanned Jonathan Gold's headline and the first few sentences in the LA Times, but I was forced to read deeper because I didn't understand if he liked it, and in fact, I still don't. Gold recently named Vespertine the number one restaurant in Los Angeles, so he liked something.
After reading Gold's review, I needed more information, so I read LA Weekly's Rodell's review of Vespertine, and then countless others. Did I want to eat at this place that seemed so otherworldly, with cool, automated service, totally out there dishes, and a big price tag to match? After careful consideration, the answer ended up being yes, because I am food experience collector, and this definitely seemed like an unforgettable culinary experience.
Before I go on, I want to warn you that if you're going to go to Vespertine yourself at some point, you might not want to read all of this as there are indeed fun surprises along the way. Of course the menu changes often and there is no photography allowed inside, so you definitely won't know everything, and there's no way I could even tell you everything that I ate, but I wanted to provide a proper spoiler alert.
When you arrive at Vespertine you're told that you must check-in with the valet, regardless of your mode of transportation to the restaurant. The valet greets you by name and directs you to a garden, just off the parking lot. The man-made garden sits in the shadow of the looming, wave building or Waffle as it's called, meticulously crafted by famed architect Eric Moss. Your foodie adventure begins with an infused herbal cocktail that you sip while sitting on a heated stone bench.
Soon a server in black appears and directs you indoors and then points to an empty elevator and tells you to go to level 2. Alone in the elevator, you arrive on level 2. The doors open and there's Chef Jordan Kahn, from Red Medicine fame, standing there, greeting you by name. You're in his pristine and sleek kitchen. My house has never looked that clean. There's an army of people with tweezers, plates, and sauces hunched over dishes, creating the magic to come.
Kahn explains his vision for the restaurant and is quite personable. I congratulated him on his best restaurant status and he laughed nervously, saying, yeah, no pressure or anything. I didn't find him nearly as dark as the articles describe, but his food genius was still to come.
We were then led up an outside staircase to the top floor that is open aired, but plenty warm with blankets and heat lamps. The chairs are giant, overstuffed bean bag chairs, but with structure so you're plenty comfortable. You sit beside your dining partner and watch the planes take off while a litany of food and drinks arrive.
Kahn reappeared to talk about one of the first courses that he personally foraged himself. He does almost all of the foraging and laughed that yeah, he doesn't sleep. We ate dried kelp and sea lettuce chips that hung on elaborate branches displayed in front of us. They were perfectly crisp and appropriately addicting. You could eat a bag of those, but there's so much more.
Each actual dish is truly a work of art as Kahn works with a handful of artists to create the pieces. One almost looks like a solid, black, upright brick, but there's a jenga-esque piece removed and in its place is a block of compressed pear with mango. A perfect palate cleanser between courses.
Another dish arrives as two half domes (above). Stuck in each side is burnt onion and black currant. You will successful wipe the domes clean as it's simply amazing. After enjoying a half dozen amuse bouche, you're instructed to go downstairs to the dining room.
The garden and rooftop are both light and breezy, but warm and inviting spots. The dining room is not. It's cool with no color, unless you count black and silver as colors. A dozen servers glide around the rooms in black tunics. I'd say that the food is meant to be the star and focus of your attention, not anything else in the room.
Unique dishes come out in succession with different servers describing the myriad of components in each one. There's foraged greens everywhere. There are lots of foams, a frozen ingredient or two, plays of textures and tastes. Your mind is constantly working as you try to figure out exactly what you're eating and what you taste most.
We had a savory trout roe rice pudding. Scallop and bone marrow collided in one dish, and super tender spot prawn sat in a mix of quince and red spinach. There was crab, turkey, turbot, lamb heart, and sea urchin. Each dish was composed of dozens of complex ingredients and each time I'd taste something, I'd shake my head and say, I've simply never had these flavors together. That said, I enjoyed every combination, even if it was unrecognizable at times.
My fear of cool service was unfounded. The servers were all very friendly and did describe what we were eating, not that we had heard of all of it. The sommelier was especially personable. He poured everything from bubbles to white, red, beer, kombucha and a blue tea. The pairing is good fun and pairs perfectly with the dishes as you might imagine.
So how much are you paying for all of this? The tasting menu is $250 per person plus tax and tip. Beverage pairings run $85 - 200 per person. There is also an optional after dinner experience for $30 each. So you likely won't be getting out of there under $1000 for 2 people. As I said, this is for the food experience collectors, not someone looking for a Tuesday night dinner.
The after dinner experience takes you back to the ground level garden, where everything began. A lovely set-up awaits you with a telescope, burning incense, some fresh fruit, finger desserts and a trio of interesting fruit infused alcoholic beverages. It's a nice spot to sit and star gaze or simply look back at the interesting building where you just spent four hours and reflect on the evening.
Jonathan Gold is right. There really is nothing like Vespertine in LA. The dishes are truly unique, and not ones you're going to find anywhere else. Kahn is working hard to create a memorable experience with sustainable and local ingredients, and he succeeds. I found Vespertine to be fun, thought-provoking and truly enjoyable.
3599 Hayden Avenue, Culver City