The Distinguished Gourmand: Vespertine
Chances are if you live in Los Angeles and follow the culinary scene here with even a passing interest, you’ve heard about Vespertine. Even before opening in 2017 the restaurant was generating headlines as both official and rumored details leaked to the local and national press. You could put together a neat little BINGO card with commonly-cited words and phrases used to describe the dining experience: “spaceship,” “alien,” and sundry similarly celestial references are used in a typical review of Vespertine. Chef Jordan Kahn (last seen blowing my mom’s mind at Red Medicine some years ago) certainly made many journalists’ jobs easier when a GQ quoted him as saying the architectural wonder housing Vespertine, “is a machine artifact from an extraterrestrial planet that was left here like a billion years ago by a species that were moon worshippers.” Seemingly from that one quote, a million Yelp, LA Times, NY Times and other review-ships were launched.
I’ll spare you more of that same heady garbage-speak because no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be a food journalist. Even after eight years of actively trying to expand my palate — dining at some of America’s premiere establishments — I can barely even string together words descriptive enough to convey the greatness of the scrambled eggs and fries plate at Patra Burgers. I was crushed when Red Medicine closed. During its run, it was probably my favorite restaurant in all of Los Angeles. And, honestly, when Vespertine opened I thought of it more like how I think of places like Ursawa or Totoraku: gems located in the city of Los Angeles I’ll probably never have the chance to step foot inside. Watching the trailer for Vespertine before its opening reminded me an awful lot of the trailer for Next before it opened. Only Vespertine’s trailer was scored by This Will Destroy You. You can imagine how I might have been elated and frustrated in equal measure. A genre-defying fine dining spot opens near me, music recorded by one of my favorite bands plays throughout the meal, and who knows if/when I’ll ever get to experience it.
Shockingly, amazingly, I had the opportunity to dine at Vespertine this past weekend. One of the most generous birthday gifts I’ve ever received led me to Culver City on Friday night. I was told that my gift was going to be a meal, but I wasn’t sure where I was being taken. I was told that the vibe was “dressy,” and that I should anticipate a 3-4 hour meal. There were other clues as well, but the only two places that seemed to check all the boxes were Dialogue and Vespertine. My gut said Vespertine, so on Friday morning when I dressed for work I made sure to don my finest alien abduction-themed socks beneath my slacks. Shortly after 8 pm, our Uber rolled up outside the unmistakable exterior that is featured prominently in just about every review of the restaurant I’d read. We approached the valet and were immediately escorted to a garden in the shadow of Eric Owen Moss’ “Waffle” building, with three or four Eno-esque notes (with that unmistakably TWDY tone) emanating from…somewhere. Before I even had time to soak in my surroundings, our evening was underway.
I’m going to try my best to recap the meal. Keep in mind I was terrified of being seen either taking notes or snapping pictures of the meal. I don’t think it’s a big deal as long as you’re not using a flash, but I still felt slightly uncomfortable trying to document things properly. Hence my use of the word “recap,” and not “review.” To put it mildly, this was a totally singular fine dining experience. There is no whimsy like you’ll find in the picnic in the park dish at Eleven Madison Park, you don’t feel like your dining inside of a Fabergé egg like you do at Daniel, there are no servers removing cloches in unison like a terrifying synchronized swimming team. To me at least, Vespertine is totally unique. To compare and contrast with other eateries would be trite.
When we had finished our tea, wine and snacks, we were walked back to Floor 2 and told to press the “M” button in the elevator. The doors opened into the main dining room. We were seated at a corner booth in a room with maybe 9 or 10 tables. Before arriving at the restaurant it was decided that we would have drink pairings with half of the courses we were served. I’ll do my best to recount what was imbibed along with the food but I didn’t take any pictures of the beverages. Even if diners at other tables had full on DSLR cameras, my feeling was that it would have been too much to snap so many pictures. Shortly after we were seated the processional of food and drink began. Some of the servers were more amiable than others. Some lingered to discuss a dish or a libation, others simply appeared — like apparitions — to elucidate, then quickly disappeared.
Our next dish (not pictured) was presented as Hokkaido scallops, caramelized scallops, bone marrow marmalade, shaved white asparagus, with a broth of yuzu and pine. This is one of the more visually striking dishes you’ll see included with reviews of the restaurant, so google Vespertine and scallops and you can get a close approximation of what it looks like. We were both shocked at how if you caramelize scallops enough they take on a flavor and texture similar to that of bacon bits. It certainly added a “meaty” element to an incredibly light and airy dish. The pairing with this course was Fukucho, “Moon On The Water” Junmai Ginjo sake.
Dumb me, I missed my chance to take a photo of what might have been the best dish of the entire meal. The Dungeness Crab with trumpet mushrooms, egg yolk, caramelized yeast, and some kind of magic leaf was outstanding. The crab was sandwiched in between these two oversized brown leaves. We were told to remove the top leaf, scrape the crab and egg and whatnot out of the bottom leaf, and then scrape all the nutrients from the leaf off with our teeth. It was so good. Also, I believe this course was paired with our lone beer of the evening, a Biere de Miel brewed by Off-Color in Chicago called “Eille.” It’s a honey beer with a strong coriander flavor.
As I stated above, I truly cannot compare my meal at Vespertine to that of anywhere else I have ever dined before. Neither the quality of the food nor the ambiance/setting lends itself to being neatly inserted into “best of” list. I’m also not a critic so it’s not really my place to award or reward one fine dining establishment over any other. What I can say is that, on the whole, this was a night that I will remember as vividly and happily as I do few other significant celebrations and events in my life that have revolved around a meal. My first time visiting Blue Hill At Stone Barns, Ian’s bachelor party dinner/Caligulan food orgy at Au Pied de Cochon, and my 35th birthday at Vespertine are three settings/times/meals that I think I will carry with me for a long time. For someone who — up until ten years ago — only really ate Tombstone pizzas, plain hamburgers, and bland “safe” foods, I like to think I’ve come a long way, both in terms of expanding my horizons and my palate.
If I live another 35 years, I hope I can add to that stable of memories more nights like this one. At the very least, the more culinary adventures like this one I have, the more chances I’ll have to get all snarky and respond, “I eat well” when my friends mock me for all the extravagant dinners I’ve had.
This Will Destroy You – Kitchen [MP3]
“One of seven pieces written for the building itself (and even the space around it), “Kitchen” is the music that diners first hear as they are greeted by Chef Kahn before dinner service begins for the evening. In composing the music for this interaction, THIS WILL DESTROY YOU’s Chris King and Jeremy Galindo sought to convey a warm, hospitable – if not reassuring – tone for listeners that may (or may not) be present elsewhere as they discover and explore the spaces in and around Vespertine’s looming architectural monolith for the remainder of their stay.”
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