Challenging—that might be the word to describe dinner at Jordan Kahn’s impossibly ambitious Culver City restaurant. One of the year’s most anticipated openings, Vespertine had been at the center of speculation months before its July debut. That Kahn, former chef of Red Medicine and the force behind postmodern café Destroyer, declined to reveal details beyond odd tidbits about the space (envisioned as an “artifact from an extraterrestrial planet”) prompted even open-minded observers to wonder: What the hell is up with this place?
Few could have anticipated the answer. As you’re whisked via elevator to a rooftop patio by smock-clad servers to begin a monastic four-hour (!) meal, an initial sense of befuddlement gives way to awe, at least briefly. The view atop the futuristic Eric Owen Moss-designed edifice is as captivating as the building itself, an undulating mass of latticed metal that glows during sunset and shudders in the wind. Nibbling on furls of dried kelp (a snack) while atmospheric electronica subtly drones in the background, you find it hard not to revel in the transportive qualities of Kahn’s created world. But once you’re led down to the dining room, things start to get a little fuzzy.
White asparagus with squid. Avocado cooked in salt water. Turkey with rhubarb. Sea urchin with coconut. Visually stunning and intricately arranged courses (about 20 in all) arrive at an uneven clip, most introduced by only a few words and served on weighty volcanic-black dishware. A handful of offerings—radiant desserts like Santa Rosa plum bathed in mozzarella milk and cashew caramels wrapped with vinegar-laced mulberries—are bewilderingly good. But the majority, including a punishingly fishy raw flounder dish and a shaved endive assemblage that veers into castor oil bitterness, are bereft of any gustatory pleasure. Kahn is far from a novice, though. Could this dourness be intentional? Viewed as a meditation on sci-fi stoicism, perhaps Vespertine is commendable on its own avant-garde merits. But as a restaurant—one that costs more than $350 per person—Kahn’s culinary experiment is hard to swallow.