Dinner Theatre

From our latest newsletter:

Up close, the building sounds as if it is singing or humming.

One of the most talked about restaurant openings in the U.S. recently has been Vespertine in Culver City, Los Angeles. Self-described as “a gastronomical experiment seeking to disrupt the course of the modern restaurant”, the building it’s housed in (pictured here*) has been described by others as a “crashed spaceship”, and dining there like “eating on Jupiter”. Jonathan Gold, the Pultizer-prize winning critic for the L.A. Times summarises the experience:

It’s not dinner; it’s Gesamtkunstwerk [German for ‘total work of art’]…“Checking in with valet before dinner is required,’’ says an email sent to you before your dinner, “as this member of our team is integral to your experience.’’ You hand off your keys. You walk past a watery ditch lined with shattered rock whose cracks ooze green light. You are led to an elevator in the rust-colored steel structure, and are let off in the kitchen and a bowing Kahn. You climb stairs to an aerie at the top, settle into low couches, sip at a concoction of white vermouth garnished with a purple passion fruit flower. This is the first of many flowers you will see tonight. You will recognize none of them. … The more you eat of the turnips, the more vinegary the dish becomes, until by the end you are practically coughing at the fumes.

Macrocystis pyrifera, the botanical name for the sea kelp that has been bent into a hoop inside a black clay serving piece.
Oxalis stems project from a black raspberry and buckwheat dessert served in a meringue-frosted bowl. The indigo tint of the meringue comes from the flowers of the butterfly pea plant.
Under a disc of ice slicked with balsam oil are real peas and imposter peas, which turn out to be small orbs of kiwi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If by this point in the evening you are ill at ease, that is probably the point. When you escape to use the restroom, you may be baffled by the sink, flanked by vials of essential oils on one side and what looks like a bowl of white sand on the other. (The sand is apparently powdered soap.) If you step outside for a breather, you will discover that the air is thick with frankincense. When you try to swirl your glass of orange-hued Central Coast Viognier blend, you will find that the sticky tabletop has bonded the delicate Zalto stemware to the table.

Despite what sounds like a frankly unpleasant experience, Gold recently named Vespertine no. 1 on his annual list of the 101 best restaurants in L.A., even as he acknowledged that dining there will drive many people “insane”. It’s a curious time, and not only in the dining world, where the value of something seems to be gauged by how “disruptive” it can be to the normal course of things. We’re all for innovation and creativity, but isn’t one of the nicest things about dining out (or in!) is knowing what you’re eating, and being left to enjoy it in an undisrupted fashion?

Still, maybe Vespertine will remain a lone spaceship in a dining landscape that thankfully (mostly) continues to focus on making diners feel at ease, rather than the opposite. It is, after all, located just a short distance from where the original Oz movie was filmed, so perhaps a bit of wizardry isn’t entirely inappropriate.

*All images and captions courtesy of this New York Times slideshow