09 July 2017


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.