Anybody inclined to paint the restaurant as a steaming pile of pretentious nonsense will find that Jordan Kahn, Vespertine’s chef and overall impresario, is standing there with an open paint bucket and a brush. Vespertine is dedicated to “exploring a dimension of cuisine that is neither rooted in tradition nor culture,” a press release read. “It is a spirit that exists between worlds.” To Marian Bull of GQ, he described the building, one of several the architect Eric Owen Moss has designed in this low-rise district of vintage studio lots and start-ups, as “a machine artifact from an extraterrestrial planet that was left here like a billion years ago by a species that were moon worshippers.”
I spent most of an evening in that building and I still have no idea what he was talking about. The servers acted less like ancient space aliens than like monks running a monastic retreat for stressed-out nonbelievers. They glided around in black slippers and flowing black tunics, quiet as ninjas. When they were not going up the staircase to the third-floor kitchen or depositing food arrangements on the acrylic tabletops with a semi-explanatory murmur (“giant kelp with whipped honey and yuzu emulsion”), they stood motionlessly off to the side, looking either at the horizon or at the wall.
When he defines the cooking as rootless, Mr. Kahn is on more solid footing. Early in his career he worked in the pastry kitchens of Per Se and Alinea, so he knows how to take pains. A great deal of the pains he takes at Vespertine seem to go into making the food look like something other than food.
That, at least, is how it struck me after one meal at this “gastronomical experiment,” as the website has it. Writing up my preliminary impressions seems more appropriate than a full starred review for a work that is explicitly, intentionally in progress, one whose aim is to do something restaurants haven’t done before. Never mind that this has been the aim of a small parade of restaurants from El Bullí on, and that Vespertine falls right in step with that parade, however much it may pretend to have sprung from a fallen spore from another galaxy.
The first dish of the night seemed to be a sequined branch on an inclined black tortilla. The tortilla was a clay plate made, like many of the serving pieces, by a local sculptor named Robert Boldz. The branch was a water spinach stem brushed with turkey emulsion and bedazzled with little yellow pike eggs, tiny finger-lime orbs, pink and purple flowers the size of shirt-collar buttons, and whatnot. I like salads flavored with poultry juices, and I liked this.
Next came what I thought of as A Wheel Inside a Wheel, a wide looping belt of kelp stuck with blots of lovage sauce to the inside of a black ceramic hoop. There was a bloop of whipped honey inside the hoop, too. I stared, looking for a way in, until a server said, “You can think of it as chips and dip.” Oh, of course.
Some courses were almost inviting. Others seemed determined not to be eaten at all, like the C-curve of black wafer pressed into a C-curve of black ceramic. It wasn’t at all clear which part was supposed to go in my mouth. I gambled on the wafer, which was a crumbly savory cookie made from black currants and dried onions and brushed with black currant jam.
It went on from there, the portions growing slightly more substantial. Nothing tasted as weird as it looked. For this I was grateful. Nearly every dish tasted good, in one way or another, although more than one juxtaposed something unquestionably delicious with other things that turned up empty-handed to the flavor party: wonderful lobster in a bittersweet sauce of malted barley syrup and butter with a dull white spill of tapioca; exceptional brined scallop, sauced with yuzu and a tea made from Douglas fir tips, with unexciting ovals of white asparagus standing up like marble headstones in a cemetery.
Mr. Kahn has strong ideas about Vespertine’s food, but in these early months his interests seem predominantly visual. Drinking the juice pairing, I was amazed to realize that each of my drinks looked like my companion’s wines or beers; the ruby tone of his pinot noir nearly matched that of my beet and rose-hip juice. Our pairings converged at one point, a tea made from flowers of the butterfly pea plant. Its flavor was flat, almost imperceptible, but its color was a profound blue almost never seen at the dinner table.
Heightened attention to visuals is routine for chefs these days, when a pretty food picture can rocket around the world in minutes. This is not Mr. Kahn’s game. Certain Vespertine dishes are virtually unphotographable by design. The caramelized lobster, for instance, is squirreled away inside a black ceramic globe. A small opening lets in almost no light.
He isn’t trying to dress up his cooking so much as he’s trying to wrestle it away from familiarity. He certainly uses flowers for their colors — none of them tasted like much — but the blossoms he chooses are not normal restaurant ingredients. Gardeners may spot sweet alyssum, passionflower and yarrow, but others probably won’t.
The urge to make food unrecognizable as food has been going strong since the rise of Ferran Adrià, whose lasting legacy is his emphasis on transforming ingredients into unfamiliar shapes and states. Some chefs who followed Mr. Adrià’s plunge into the weird, such as Grant Achatz and Wylie Dufresne, often combined flavors in ways that were immediately recognizable, even if the shapes were new. The taste of pastrami and rye at Mr. Dufresne’s WD-50, or birthday cake at Mr. Achatz’s Alinea, provided a sensory thread back to the known world.
Mr. Kahn’s innovation is to cut that thread. The rhubarb compote he serves with heirloom turkey may or may not be an analogue for cranberries, but in general he faithfully carries out his promise to uproot Vespertine’s cooking from tradition and culture. You’re not meant to know what you’re eating, which may be why the servers’ monkish murmurs cover just a fraction of what they are depositing in front of you.
This would be all right if the flavors made as strong an impression as the shapes they’d taken. But I remember the way my meal looked much more vividly than how it tasted. Mr. Kahn is letting his gifts as a sculptor and colorist, which are real, get the upper hand.
For the first two hours or so, Vespertine had me going. The music, by the Texas ambient outfit This Will Destroy You, made me slow down and listen for small shifts and surprise harmonies. (Five recordings of violas, guitars, synthesizers, xylophones and music boxes, among other instruments, play in different parts of the restaurant, composed in relative keys so they mesh together when you hear more than one at a time.) I appreciated the way the murmuring monks, instead of telling me how “Chef” wanted the food to enter my body, left me to puzzle it out on my own. And up to a point, I enjoyed solving those puzzles.
Before dinner ended, though, I’d had enough. If I hadn’t been guilted into paying $30 in advance for after-dinner drinks in the garden by an unsubtle poke from the ticketing website (“We ask that all guests participate”), I would have called for the car.
Another Adrià legacy is the idea that creativity in cooking means a sharp break with the past. Mr. Achatz picked up on this when he named his restaurant Alinea, after the medieval symbol marking a new paragraph — a new line of thought.
I have never seen a restaurant try as hard as Vespertine to erase everything that came before. While I was eating there I didn’t miss the good old earth, but I did think that Mr. Kahn’s new planet needed a few more signs of life.