If you were looking for the oddest dish being served in an American restaurant right now, you should probably start with the fish course at Jordan Kahn’s new Vespertine, a dish that nudges the idea of culinary abstraction dangerously close to the singularity. It doesn’t look like fish, for one thing — it looks rather like an empty bowl, coarse and pebbly inside and out, of a blackness deep enough to suck up all light, your dreams and your soul.
If this were Coi or Alinea, to name two modernist temples, your server would instruct you on how to eat the dish, or at least on where you might direct your spoon. At Vespertine, the server, wearing a severe frock like something out of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” does not. If you prompt her, she may whisper the word hirame, which in a sushi bar can mean either flounder or halibut. She will leave before you discover that the flounder has been pounded thin, crusted with charred-onion powder, and pressed into the bowl over a kind of porridge studded with minced shallot, perfumy bits of pickled Japanese plum, and bright, crunchy bursts of acid that could either be finger-lime vesicles or chopped stems of the wildflower oxalis. You are not sure exactly what you are eating. You are not meant to know. You have traveled from darkness into light, and that is enough.
Los Angeles has recently become known as one of the best places in the world to eat, renowned for its diversity, splendid produce and receptivity to the ideas of young chefs, although perhaps lacking in restaurants of the very top tier. Vespertine, a wavy, waffle-skinned structure in Culver City’s Hayden Tract, is among the area’s first leaps into the international avant-garde — the sort of dining rooms that tend to do better on the World’s Top 50 Restaurants list than they do in the Michelin guide; the kitchens where the artistic imperatives of the chef tend to outweigh any questions of what a customer might want to eat; the meals after which a cynical diner, confronted with 20-plus courses of kelp, hemp and tree shoots, makes jokes about stopping for tacos on the way home.
As at Trois Mec and Alinea, you buy your table in advance through Tock, as if you were buying tickets for a show. As at Noma, you choose between wine and elaborate juice pairings. As at Eleven Madison Park, each course is part of a narrative, although here you are never quite sure what the narrative is supposed to be. I still have no idea whether Vespertine was designed to function as a restaurant or as an architectural folly by Eric Owen Moss; a dining room or an art installation; a showcase for the ceramics of Ryota Aoki or a stage for an extremely ambient soundtrack by the Texas post-rock band This Will Destroy You, three or four thrumming notes that will follow you around for hours.
(The tickets are expensive — $250 plus tax, obligatory tip, and supplements for wine pairings and after-dinner coffee and liqueurs in the garden — more than $1,000 for two, all told.)
It may be a must for you
I would say that a meal at Vespertine is mandatory for a certain kind of diner, but mandatory in the way that the James Turrell show at LACMA a couple of years ago was mandatory, or Berg’s “Wozzeck,” or the current season of “Twin Peaks.” It’s not dinner; it’s Gesamtkunstwerk.
“Checking in with valet before dinner is required,’’ says an email sent to you before your dinner, “as this member of our team is integral to your experience.’’
You hand off your keys. You walk past a watery ditch lined with shattered rock whose cracks ooze green light. You are led to an elevator in the rust-colored steel structure, and are let off in the kitchen and a bowing Kahn. You climb stairs to an aerie at the top, settle into low couches, sip at a concoction of white vermouth garnished with a purple passion fruit flower. This is the first of many flowers you will see tonight. You will recognize none of them.
There will be white Asiatic dayflower petals arranged into a torch blossom shape atop a sliver of ripe Japanese melon atop one of Aoki’s black, ceramic vessels, and when you finish, a waitress flips it and you find tannic, velvety bougainvillea leaves glued with a gel of beets and Concord grapes to a cavity underneath. An inverted pottery arch holds a black hoop inside which another hoop fashioned of toasted kelp is glued with a salty yuzu cream that has the smack of party onion soup dip. A slab of cured mango, laminated with sunflower petals, fits into what looks like the monolith from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” What looks like a model rocket’s nose cone appears at the table, and it takes a moment or two to discover how to take it apart to get at the jet-black burnt-onion cookie inside it, which itself hides a wisp of crisp fruit leather, a berry or two, and more cream.
The sun is setting. You can see the mountains behind Malibu, the Hollywood Hills, and the lights of downtown. A Metro train skitters across the skyline like something from the set of the Spike Jonze movie “Her.” It is time to go down into the dining room. The minimalist soundtrack, which all sounds like the part where the icebergs float by in a National Geographic film, has seared itself into your brain.
Welcome to Jordanworld
Is the main room different? It is, kind of, more like a regular dining room anyway, with tacky acrylic tables — tacky in the slightly sticky sense — and lighting that seems dominated by the wine glasses reflected onto the ceiling. Is the music different? Yes, in the sense that it is made up of a different set of four notes.
You go through the fish, a composition of pea ice, candied peas and tendrils that resembles what Kahn was doing at Red Medicine a few years ago, and an arresting composition of smoked bone marrow with braised leek hearts in plum broth sprinkled with deathly bitter wormwood leaves. (Was the orange smear puréed mussels, chicken liver or foie gras? I’ll never know.) Did you know yucca blossom petals were edible? Apparently they are — Kahn affixes them to a bowl’s interior with smoked cheese, and they look a bit like spiky Komodo dragon scales.
Some nights there is shaved white asparagus arranged into something that resembles Frank Gehry’s hockey stick chairs. Some nights the shaved white asparagus appears as thin coins garnishing a plate of raw scallops, almond, wild fennel fronds and what tastes like raw oats. Once there are baby turnips the size of chickpeas, served with onion-powder blackened balls of banana, chewy rice dumplings and tiny flowers that looked as if they had escaped from a Watteau painting. The more you eat of the turnips, the more vinegary the dish becomes, until by the end you are practically coughing at the fumes.
If by this point in the evening you are ill at ease, that is probably the point. When you escape to use the restroom, you may be baffled by the sink, flanked by vials of essential oils on one side and what looks like a bowl of white sand on the other. (The sand is apparently powdered soap.) If you step outside for a breather, you will discover that the air is thick with frankincense. When you try to swirl your glass of orange-hued Central Coast Viognier blend, you will find that the sticky tabletop has bonded the delicate Zalto stemware to the table.
Almost all good Los Angeles restaurants have a sense of place and time, fashioned from local produce, a sense of season and a nod to the diversity of the area. At Vespertine, you may as well be on Jupiter — I kept humming Sun Ra’s “Space Is the Place’’ to myself as I ate.
So it wasn’t altogether surprising to encounter Thanksgiving in the heat of summer, a credible thumb of roast turkey breast, wrapped in sheets of shaved, braised rhubarb that had the tang of cranberry sauce, and garnished with slivered raw rhubarb, tossed in turkey fat, that tasted even more like the holiday than the bird.
There was Dungeness crab wrapped in cabbage after that, and blossom-encrusted warm avocado with yeast butter and roasted strawberry paste, and smoked, dried lamb hearts shaved over a bowl of marionberries bleeding into pale yogurt. We could talk about the muscat grapes mounded over horseradish ice cream, the sour puck of black sorrel ice in a marshmallow-coated bowl, or the almond fudge with cucumbers and redwood ice. I could probably go on for a while just about the silverware, some of which looks as if it was hammered out by elves and some of which resembles prison shivs rather too closely. But by the end of the meal, you’re going to be pretty exhausted. And that cup of osha tea in the humming garden, the currants and elderberries served on a rock, are going to seem pretty good.
At Mugaritz, the revered modernist restaurant near San Sebastian, Spain, diners used to be presented with two envelopes before dinner, one of which read: “150 mins ... submit,’’ the other “150 mins ... rebel.’’ The meals were identical. The experiences, not so much. At Vespertine, you should probably submit to Jordanworld. You will be back on Earth soon enough.
Chef Jordan Kahn’s experimental tasting menu restaurant in Culver City
3599 Hayden Ave., Culver City, (323) 320-4023, vespertine.la.
Dinner for two, prepaid on Tock, $500, plus tax, tip, drinks and optional after-dinner digestif service on patio.
Dinner Tues.-Sat., 5:30-9:30. Credit cards (but not cash) accepted, full bar, valet parking.
Hirame with burnt onion, toasted kelp with yuzu cream, baby turnips with bananas.
MORE FROM JONATHAN GOLD