In an industrial expanse of LA called Hayden Tract, low-slung buildings filled with tech start-ups and film production studios reside beside some eclectic architecture. Among them rises an angular yet undulating four-story, rust-colored waffle designed by Eric Owen Moss, who has devoted his talents to transforming urban ugliness. Even though the building was never meant to be a restaurant, upon seeing its shell, Kahn became determined to build his dream there. He convinced not just Moss but an indie band, a renowned ceramist, a fashion designer, and a team of cooks to join him in creating an immersive, multidisciplinary art project helmed by a chef. “Food is such a remarkable medium to work in,” Kahn says. “It’s one of the few things that can cause such intense emotional reactions from people. I give you a giant bowl of ooey gooey mac and cheese? It’s the only thing other than a fire and a blanket that can make you feel that way.”
As I pull into the lot adjoining the wavy grid of the tower, two attendants in gauzy black tunics (by designer Jona Sees, I later learn) greet me. Surely they were extras from a sci-fi film who wandered off a nearby studio lot, but no—I realize as they request my keys that they are the valets. One absconds with my car, and the other guides me to a concrete slab, one of many gray islands amid a sea of vegetation. A flute of sparkling birch juice awaited my arrival, and I can hear the languorous music of the instrumental band This Will Destroy You, which created a custom score for the dining adventure.
The attendants, pleasant and calm, cue me to follow them toward Vespertine’s entrance. I board the elevator and ascend to the third floor where, as the doors part, the space emperor himself stands waiting. As he eagerly welcomes me and explains the building’s architecture, it’s apparent this isn’t some bizarre intergalactic ruler but rather an earnest craftsman who just happened to style himself like the lead singer of an industrial rock band.
On the roof, I sink into an overstuffed chair and drink from an aperitif with a beautiful yet foreboding flower swimming atop the aromatized wine. Kahn reappears, bearing a bowl of silky and brightly acidic fermented chickpea puree covered in a quilt of small green leaves. It looks as if he’s brought a dip without chips. He then surprises me by saying the tree branch on the table, draped with green and brown ribbons I had ignored as some object, is actually dried kelp I can use to scoop up the puree.
Tiny courses continue to arrive in odd pottery crafted for Vespertine alone, like the cone that splits apart to reveal flowers stacked in seeming defiance of gravity along the inside but that are actually attached to a curved savory cookie. I pulled out my phone to take a picture, because I’m that guy. I tried to conceal my mini photo shoot, remembering the restaurant’s reputation for hostility toward phones. But no one makes me stop when caught in the act. As the next course emerges, the server even pauses to let me finish my shot.
Kahn explains: “When you first open, some people only come for this reason,” he says, holding up his phone. “We discouraged phones the first month to get a more visceral, accurate response from guests. And then one day I was like, ‘Okay, we’re good.’ You don’t want to tell people how to live their lives and enjoy things.”
The servers seem to move in unison, which is no accident. A choreographer trained them to glide through the dining room, avoiding sharp movements and using the music to guide them. So as one pours a drink at a table, the motion of his arm is in sync with the foot of the server walking on the other side of the room. It may seem like overkill, but the result is an unexpected harmony that has the power to transport. There was a moment, as I sat on the roof with the music thrumming, the servers weaving around tables, the gentle wind causing treetops to sway, that I just stared at the jostling leaves, losing myself in an almost meditative state as I waited for my next course to arrive. I recount this to Kahn, and he merely smiles and casts his gaze downward. He was pleased.
After the appetizers finish, I’m led down to the small dining room and seated in a booth made of curved steel that halfway encircles an acrylic table. The dishes proceed much like they did above, arriving in bespoke ceramics and plated in such a way as to obscure what you are about to eat, many times eliciting monosyllabic responses out of me ranging from an inquisitive “huh?” to an astonished “whoa.”
A beautiful arc of petals across a white plate is served with a jus the same deep shade of purple. I learn these are the flowers from favas, and they’re obscuring the beans from my view. On a subsequent course, as I dig into a deep bowl to scoop out what’s on the bottom, the spoon in my hand is of such a weight and balance that I can’t help but stop eating and admire it. Later, I take a bite of caviar—and with the briny roe I’m surprised to taste something sweet, realizing the osetra has been paired with macerated banana. And in one striking dish, it’s nearly impossible to tell where the black pottery ends and the food begins, as a layer of powdered burnt onion covers a mixture of scallops, marrow, and preserved plum.
For all the talk of Vespertine’s cuisine being weird and otherworldly, once I peel back the layers of the abstract plating, I discover delicious and recognizable food underneath. I wasn’t just popping food in pill form or downing glasses of Soylent. And yet the experience can be exhausting because Kahn never lets diners off the hook. His obfuscating style of plating doesn’t provide easy answers. He’s continually finding ways to make me engage, even down to the grippy texture on the tabletops that means I can’t just mindlessly swirl my wine. If I want to swirl the glass, I must lift it off the table, and that mere act forces me to consider it more than I would have otherwise.