|Vespertine, Los Angeles. Photo by author.|
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.