17 August 2017

THIS HIDDEN PLACE

Vespertine, Los Angeles. Photo by author.
Before my meal at Vespertine, chef Jordan Kahn’s fantastical restaurant in Culver City’s Hayden Tract, I savored anticipating it. In a blog post of July 9, I appreciated the beguiling pre-opening hype. Now, a few days since my visit, I can say that the aftermath is richer still. Some meals you digest mentally long after your stomach does its part.

Partly because I’m still processing the five-hour extravagance, and partly because I have a pressing work deadline and can’t write as in-depth as I’d like, it’s premature for me to speak about my visit. But I feel an urgency to stick up for Vespertine in the face of negative commentary, especially by one Hollywood Reporter critic and a snarky Instagramer, whose conclusions about the place have received outsize attention.

The Hollywood Reporter said Vespertine was “intentionally joyless.” I’ll never know if the staff corrected attitude after that review. All I can say is that every member of Kahn’s team was warm and gracious to me and my companion, and generous and knowledgeable when asked about the food. Never were they cold or overly solicitous.

The Reporter went on to say that the seating in the dining room somberly faced people toward the center of the room and each other. I thought the furniture was smartly designed and configured for privacy and splendid views. Tall, curved booth backings encased the banquette seats, separating the dining parties visually and aurally just enough. The curving backs allowed me to twist inward, better facing my companion, or outward, to take in the restaurant’s spectacular architecture and surrounding industrial park. Through the glass-and-steel grid on three of the building’s four sides, we saw a campus of warehouses, the afterhours and back doors of our “creative economy” and imaginative buildings by Eric Owen Moss for which the area is renowned.

As if it was an undue affront, the Instagramer complained of being berated for taking pictures. That person clearly provoked his or her own bad time by fighting the premise of the restaurant.

If we want to enjoy them, it's best to understand that restaurants exist on a spectrum. At one extreme, we diners are the stars of our dramas, while the restaurant staff and décor play supporting roles. At the other end, we have places like Vespertine, where the restaurant is the main player and the guests take in what should be a unique and worthwhile show. For this, as on a night at the opera, we ought to accept the house terms: in this case, no taking pictures once inside. They do ask nicely.

It’s hard for me, as one who writes about restaurants, to refrain from the photography that helps me remember details or to accept what sometimes seems like an undemocratic restriction of my pictorial “speech.” But, after visiting Vespertine, I understand why the no-photography rule stands. So much delight depends on surprise in every space and moment of the meal that to proliferate images, beyond the teasers the restaurant metes out to press, would deprive future diners of something vital.   

In these early days of the restaurant, I don’t mind being an accomplice, keeping Vespertine a little hidden. That way, others can enjoy the experience as I did. For that reason, I won’t get too detailed when describing the experience, revealing in words what pictures threaten to do. But, to give the restaurant the credit it deserves, I must convey at least in general terms what impressed me most.

At every restaurant, architecture shapes the event of the meal. But the role the Eric Owen Moss building plays at Vespertine is well beyond the norm. Our meal progressed in multiple phases and settings, which took us through every interior floor—even dramatic parts of the building’s exterior.

When I arrived early, I waited in the outdoor garden behind the building and marveled at the manufactured pond along the entrance side. Paved with puzzle pieces of geometric white “rock,” it reminded me of another planet on Star Trek. I admired this scene from my petite concrete chair, among other uniquely proportioned chairs, benches, and tables landscaped over and under by little green hills and stalks of bamboo, giving semi-privacy to anyone there. While I waited for my friend, a swelling abstract soundtrack surrounded me, perfectly calibrated to advance and recede at the rate of my attention. (Here, I was served water and a juice I will only say involved a tree in striking glassware). 

From this vantage point, I could see the party who arrived before me as well as servers ascending and descending stairs suspended from an upper level of the building’s exterior. This foreshadowed our journey to the first phase of our meal and the reason the reservation system asked if anyone in my party had extreme fear of heights.

Once my friend arrived, we were escorted to the ground-floor elevator, which took us to the second, kitchen, floor, where chef Kahn graciously greeted us. From there, a staff member led us up those external stairs to a magical rooftop haven where we enjoyed our first five courses. (If you can choose your reservation hour, time your visit a half hour before the sun sets. The sky up there is at its most royal blue, and the temperature is ideal.) The meal proceeded on another floor, beneath, in the official dining room.

At every point, the building asserted itself. I took to it immediately and remained enraptured by it at every turn. What Eric Owen Moss did to create fluidity between inside and out, to frame views, and give a perpetual sense of openness—with multiple parts of the building visible in every part of the building—was ingenious. Putting the bathroom—and what a bathroom!—at the bottom and rear of the building showed even a sense of humor. After dining at Vespertine, I felt an anthropomorphic affection for the structure. Look at my picture of it, and maybe you can understand that. It even has a human scale.

Kahn’s cuisine and its artful presentation also stand out. I don’t want to say too much. I hope these notes will suffice: Few ingredients take the form you think they will when the servers point them out. Undoubtedly, Chef Kahn uses the full range of contemporary culinary technique and technology, and his artistic sensibility is second to none. I admit that most of the time I didn’t know what I was eating—the staff’s spare introductions, citing approximately three ingredients, served more to cast a poetic spell than to explain what were obviously complex and intricate dishes—and I didn’t care. The thrill of unexpected flavors, textures, temperatures, and weights in the food and its vessels and platforms was great enough for me on a first visit.

Nevertheless, my friend and I did notice certain patterns in the chef’s aesthetic. Over five hours, we had plenty of time to discuss them. Kahn conceived of the food inseparably from the service wares. Dish components lodged in crevices, and hid color-camouflaged among raised or concave surfaces of unique trays. Some adhered to sides of a bowl. Kahn likes vertical plinths and containers that rest on more than one side. We saw well-paced contrasts of color and texture; some like asphalt, others like cream. Kahn switched up cool and warm, temperatures we could taste in the food and feel in the ceramics. Certain vessels not only looked stunning but were functional, their thickness holding heat and cold. If you dine at Vespertine, you’ll spend a lot of time fondling and peering into bowls as if you discovered a stalagmite-filled cave. Food may be horizontal, vertical, tucked, layered.

Kahn is clearly a student of gastrophysics, the multisensory science of how we perceive food and drink. Not every dish came with a metal utensil. Sometimes a spoon was not just a spoon. He overlaid some elements just so their scent could contribute to taste. And he experimented with different weights of the dishes and utensils we held.

Near the end of the meal, before one last visit to the garden for postprandial drinks, we were brought back to the ground floor to pick up a gift from the so-called “table.” I won’t ruin it by telling you what the resinous thing was. In any case, the real gift is what Kahn has brought to the L.A. restaurant scene.

09 July 2017

ANTICIPATING VESPERTINE

Vespertine, Los Angeles. Still from trailer on the restaurant's website, vespertine.la.



I read about it. I went to the website. I watched the trailer four times. When the ticketing system finally went live, I made a reservation.

It’s hard for a restaurant to live up to a lot of pre-opening hype. In this case, the hype is for savoring all by itself. It is, at least, by thrill-seeking aesthetes like me.

From the restaurant’s website and advance press, here's my summary of the concept: Vanguard chef Jordan Kahn, whose previous ventures in Los Angeles include Red Medicine and Destroyer, intends to create an ultra-fine-dining experience that departs from today's mainstay of locavore rhetoric and aesthetics radically. He wants diners to feel transported beyond any known place. To banish signs of Earth, he has marshaled a cadre of kindred designers. The website credits Eric Owen Moss for the architecture, musicians This Will Destroy You for the "score," Ryota Aoki for "ceramics," and Jona Sees for "textiles and garments." Kahn's total theater--buzz-killers say, of the absurd--will take diners through many courses and several spaces in the building. Each space will have its own sonic ambiance. Kahn has kept the style of his food semi-veiled. What I've glimpsed seems so alien among existing forms that even a sharp photo of a dish doesn't clarify what it is. No shapes on the "plates" resemble known edibles. Hints of Vespertine's food appear sparingly in press and the trailer.

Oh, the trailer. It's the restaurant’s tone poem. The main mood is part early Alinea, where Kahn once worked, a study in luxury grays, and part otherworldly Björk, whose 2001 album is named Vespertine. It conjures an ambient music video on another planet, where a simple walk along the hills turns up transparent spiny things and geometric white flora. I think these are foretastes of Kahn's cuisine. Scenes follow a wandering waif, half hidden under a hood, who periodically fondles dirt and strange plants. Shots of the restaurant’s building, a wavy postmodern grid in dark glass and red metal, splice in toward the end, suggesting the waif’s destination. Because we never see the ground that it stands on, the structure looks like a floating world.

The branding is novel, and so I’m seduced. I have Vespertine day dreams. In one, I am swaddled in gray felt, placed by a glass wall, and allowed to marvel at sculptures they call food brought by servers in silent slippers. I imagine not moving my own body, but being transported from one room and soundscape to another as the courses of the meal progress.

My cossetting fantasy is no accident. Leading up to the opening, Vespertine has promised a kind of escape. The illusion of placelessness is temporarily unburdening. It suggests relief from a nagging conscience about exploiting Earth's creatures just when other restaurants in Vespertine's class have intensified it. Even today’s most extravagant places remind diners of food shortages and inhumane practices by citing their sustainable methods and virtuous sourcing.

The Vespertine aesthetic also removes the onus of considering labor just as the troubles of restaurant work have confronted diners via new tipping policies and surcharges for employee healthcare. In her GQ preview of Vespertine (June 7, 2017), Marian Bull reported that Kahn trained his servers to seem invisible and charged designer Aoki with making their shoes inaudible.

As long as Kahn’s labor practices really are fair, I don’t think self-effacing service is bad. On the contrary, the commitment to hospitality and fidelity to theatrical concept is admirable and consistent with good craft. Still, there’s no denying that, in Kahn’s dining drama, labor--at least of the physical kind--is a background actor.

Even the chef’s culinary aesthetic, as tentatively revealed, avoids signs of handicraft. You won't find the plate-scattered look of so much contemporary high cuisine, which at least vaguely shows evidence of handling. The glimpses I’ve gotten of Vespertine’s food suggest architectonic objects by way of CAD and the 3-D printer. Here, labor seems purely conceptual.

As with all earnest and ambitious attempts at total theater, Vespertine’s will be vulnerable to parody, camp, and unwitting pops of the proverbial balloon. I don’t see how it’s possible to avoid some glitch in the matrix—like catching the Ronald McDonald you hired for a kid’s birthday taking a cigarette break. There’s bound to be something like a dropped glass or passing glimpse of routine Earth life out the window.

But I respect the extent and courage of Kahn’s imagination, and his willingness to take the financial risk of bringing a grand fiction to life. In recent memory, I've seen no offering like it in Los Angeles--really, and that's saying a lot. The aesthete and the contrarian in me want Kahn to pull this off.

Phase one of my Vespertine experience--making the reservation--has ended. Reserving through a ticketing website is nothing new for venues with high-end tasting menus. But never before have I been asked, as I was in the final screen of the process, if anyone in my party has extreme fear of heights. A message warned that part of the evening will involve traveling to the top of the tower. (I thought I read “tower.” I was in a hurry to fill out the form before the impatient Tock system could boot me out, rescinding my hard-won reservation slot, for a second time.) Yes, I mused, take me to the tower! 

Maybe, like the spaceship I have in mind, it’ll take flight. If not, I'll always remember how good was the hype.

02 April 2017

THIS WEEK'S MENU

Gwen restaurant, Los Angeles. Photo by author.
Normally, when we think of a restaurant menu, we picture the list of dishes and drinks. But restaurants may be full of other kinds of menus, which may take unexpected forms. At Gwen in Los Angeles, for example, the food menu gives way, just prior to the service of the meaty main course, to a novel sub-menu: the presentation of a choice of knives. Thus, as the meal progresses, one set of choices yields another.

To be sure, the knife menu at Gwen is a novelty and therefore a conversation piece. As such, it's a neat bit of experiential marketing. Gimmicky, perhaps, but not pretentious because the choice has legitimate weight. Have you ever tried to eat a steak with a knife too light or too dull? If you do, you won't enjoy the steak anywhere near as much as if you'd equipped yourself with a sharp and solid tool. The choice of knife really does matter.

Of course, Gwen could have made this decision for you, providing you with a recommended blade. Why create an unnecessary ritual?

In its defense, I would say that the knife menu isn't just experiential marketing. It's also experiential design. It modifies our experience of the food. By making us mindful of the choice of knife, we become more attentive to the multiple dimensions of artistry behind our culinary pleasure in the restaurant. Even if we don't realize this consciously, we've gained an appreciation for the meal, and the restaurant, as a total work of art. We've picked up on the fact that our experience of the food is affected greatly by the myriad other sensory inputs in its vicinity.

(I wonder, too, whether our awareness of these dynamics makes us more or less or differently affected than we would be if left in the dark. Cognition is powerful, too.)

Those who want to study the effect of our other senses on our sense of taste will enjoy further research into a relatively new field known as gastrophysics. Look into it. Go down the rabbit hole.

http://www.alisonpearlman.com

19 February 2017

THIS WEEK'S MENU

Gwen restaurant, Los Angeles. View of open-fire grill at the back wall of the restaurant interior. Photo by author, 2-18-17.
In the main dining room at Gwen restaurant in Hollywood, there's a cunning presentation of choices. It starts with a look at one of the tasting menus. Will you have the three-course or the five? The prices seem low. $85 for the five? A bargain, you think. This can't be all.

It's not. That is just the overture. The tasting menu is the baseline. Then comes a "supplements" list. But it's no mere addendum. It seems more like the main event. The list is as long as the longest tasting menu, and parades a tantalizing selection of eminently distinguished meats. The prices reflect that. Some, like the 80-day dry-aged beef from Creekstone Farms and, of course, the top-tier wagyu, are over twice the cost of the entire five-course tasting menu.

You go for it. "Go big or go home," you toss caution, and half a month's rent, to the wind. Once ensconced in the dining room at Gwen, even before your platter of meat arrives, there's a good chance you'll feel that the splurge is worth it. Why?

The decor has you in a decadent mood. A restaurant menu never had a conspirator so good. See for yourself. The full-length view of ravishing embers, and the platform above it for specialty cuts, continuously jostled into a sequence of stations based on doneness and resting phases, will rile you. The action never gets dull. And you can't miss it. It's the visual anchor, literally the central feature of the restaurant.

Do you have the choice to abstain? Of course. But people say the same about sex.

www.alisonpearlman.com

22 January 2017

THIS WEEK'S MENU

Digital menu board at Neri's Restaurant, Koreatown, Los Angeles. Photo by Jamisin Matthews.
Digital menu boards have been slower to launch in the United States than in Europe or Asia. It's unclear to me exactly why. Perhaps there's a cultural dimension relating to differences in taste. Perhaps it has to do with business structures and startup costs. Dear readers, what do you think?

The matter is complicated by the fact that digital systems can vary greatly in capabilities and cost. Some are just TV screens showing a digital file of a static menu. The menu changes only when you revise the digital file. If you go with this cheaper option, you'll get the up-to-date look of a digital menu. But you'll sacrifice some of the fancy dynamics you can get with systems for which you'll pay high startup costs and monthly maintenance fees. These might include moving or rotating images; real-time variable pricing, whereby prices change throughout the day in response to ebbs and flows in consumer demand; and the capacity to change offerings and promotions as often as the weather or current events. As you might guess, the most complex systems are more likely to be adopted by large chain restaurants. They have the budgets to start and sustain them and the impetus to vary menu contents and prices by hour and region.

http://www.alisonpearlman.com