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What the Critics Are Saying About Vespertine, Jordan Kahn’s New Tasting Menu Experiment

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From “joyless” performance art to once-in-a-lifetime dishes

Photo by Jeff Elstone, courtesy of Vespertine

This summer, Los Angeles chef Jordan Kahn debuted Vespertine, a self-described “dinner experience in four acts.” In the lead-up to the Los Angeles restaurant’s July opening, Kahn likened the Eric Owen Moss-designed building to “a machine artifact from an extraterrestrial planet that was left here like a billion years ago by a species that were moon worshippers”; a press release declared Vespertine “a spirit that exists between worlds;” and completely indecipherable photos of objects that Vespertine promised were actual photos of dishes on the menu raised several questions.

Until now, what exactly has gone on in the place of “shadows and whispers” that is Vespertine has been a bit of a mystery, thanks in part to a strict no-photo policy. But, critics are finally weighing in on the ambitious fine dining experiment, and they have feelings.

See what the critics are saying below, and stay tuned for updates — we’ll incorporate more reviews as they materialize.

The Oddest Dish in America News

At Vespertine, LA Times critic Jonathan Gold found the oddest dish in America. The fish course, he writes, “nudges the idea of culinary abstraction dangerously close to the singularity... It looks rather like an empty bowl, coarse and pebbly inside and out, of a blackness deep enough to suck up all light, your dreams and your soul.” And for Gold, the oddness doesn’t end with that dish. "You are not sure exactly what you are eating. You are not meant to know. You have traveled from darkness into light, and that is enough,” he writes.

While Gold doesn’t reveal whether or not he thinks Vespertine is bad, he does note, “Almost all good Los Angeles restaurants have a sense of place and time, fashioned from local produce, a sense of season and a nod to the diversity of the area. At Vespertine, you may as well be on Jupiter.”

Ultimately, as a restaurant, Vespertine is confusing. “I still have no idea whether Vespertine was designed to function as a restaurant or as an architectural folly by Eric Owen Moss; a dining room or an art installation; a showcase for the ceramics of Ryota Aoki or a stage for an extremely ambient soundtrack by the Texas post-rock band This Will Destroy You, three or four thrumming notes that will follow you around for hours,” Gold says. He concludes: “It's not dinner; it's Gesamtkunstwerk.”

The In a Four-Star Bind News

LA Weekly restaurant critic Besha Rodell awarded Vespertine an impressive four out of five stars, despite “feeling trapped” and “worn out” by the “repetitive” meal on a first visit that was marked by service “so blank and stark and cold.” But, on a return trip aboard the Vespertine ship, although the “discordant sonic groan” that is the Vespertine sound track was unchanged, there were smaller portions, fewer courses, and “imperceptibly warmer” service.

This shift “was enough to humanize the experience — which as a result was less alien, the spell of the performance broken. But it also was less silly and more comfortable and ... better,” according to Rodell. However, while the current dining experience at Vespertine is more pleasurable than in its early days, the sense of otherworldliness the restaurant promised is missing, and Kahn fails to meet Vespertine’s “metaphysical aspirations.” Rodell writes: “Kahn might be in a bit of a bind: Either Vespertine is not weird enough, or it's so weird that it ceases to be fun.”

Photo by Jeff Elstone, courtesy of Vespertine

The Looks Better Than it Tastes News

New York Times dining critic Pete Wells shared his “preliminary impressions” of Vespertine — but, note, this is not one of his rare starred reviews of restaurants outside of New York. His reasoning: “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.”

Despite his refusal to rate the restaurant with stars, it’s clear that Wells is not Vespertine’s biggest fan. He admires Kahn’s attempt to “wrestle [his cooking] away from familiarity.” He enjoyed puzzling over the best way to consume the 17 inscrutable courses. But, the aesthetics of the food were more impressive than the actual eating of it. “I remember the way my meal looked much more vividly than how it tasted,” Wells writes. “Mr. Kahn is letting his gifts as a sculptor and colorist, which are real, get the upper hand.”

Vespertine, Wells says, “gets inside your head,” and in this respect, he admits, Kahn knows what he’s doing: “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 a an open paint bucket and a brush.”

The Most Depressing Dinner News

An early review from Gary Baum for the Hollywood Reporter described the experience of dining at Vespertine as “intentionally joyless.” The restaurant, Baum writes, “specializes in depressive haute cuisine” and “presents itself as a citadel of monastic-apocalyptic meditation, rejecting the age-old ideal of special-occasion restaurant as place of celebration.” But at times, “moments of envisioned awe manifest themselves,” as with the sea urchin course, which, according to Baum, “verged on the spectacular.”

Baum visited Vespertine on the fourth night of service — a night when Kahn stood at the elevators “[asking] for understanding as the kitchen finesses toward intended perfection” — and the mostly negative review, published just weeks after opening, was met with criticism from fellow food writers, like Rodell who explained why she waits to review in an essay for in an essay for L.A. Weekly, writing, “the first few weeks of a restaurant are not reflective of what that restaurant will be like over the course of its life.

In a second piece for THR, Baum defends the controversial early critique. He writes that Kahn has likened dining at Vespertine to a performance, and performances are usually reviewed on opening night. Plus, if a restaurant is charging money for the experience it offers, it should be ready to be judged on that experience — “Especially considering the restaurant in question: One which will only accept a reservation that's paid in advance (to the tune of a minimum of $250 per person, although in reality each diner will end up paying closer to $500 or more) without divulging basic details of the experience, including its menu,” Baum writes.

The Just Another Tasting Menu News

Eater editor-in-chief Amanda Kludt recounted her Vespertine experience in her weekly newsletter, where she called it “the most interesting new restaurant in years.” Kludt had hoped Vespertine “would live up to its promise of being different in a meaningful way.” But, although the four-and-a-half hour dinner contained moments of joy and some beautiful bites, in that respect, it failed.

While Kludt commends Kahn for his “serious and moody and austere” point of view and creating a style of plating that is unique, she notes that the experience doesn’t break out from “the usual tasting menu trappings” apparent at “Vespertine’s modernist cohorts around the world.” She says, “It’s not boring. But neither is it a paradigm shift, nor a peek at a ‘time that is yet to be.’”

According to Kludt, Kahn is simply not the genre-busting artist the early hype made him out to be: “Kahn is a talent. He’s not the James Turrell of gastronomy.”

The Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience News

Yelpers, however, are (mostly) raving. The amateur critics on the user-review site have called Vespertine “unique, beautiful, and delicious,” “a wonderful sensory dance,” and a “one-in-a-lifetime meal.”

Just a few Yelp reveiwers weren’t fans of the “deliberately un-instagrammable” dishes at Vespertine. One calls it “creative but unnecessarily complicated,” and another compares it to “alien food.” But, according to one “seasoned foodie” Vespertine isn’t about the food, anyway: “It is about escape and surprise, sensation and suspension of disbelief, and most importantly, it is about obsession.”

The Not For Instagram News

Two staffers from Infatuation LA attempted to document the full Vespertine experience in an Instagram story. They got caught and scolded by “space emperor” Kahn, but not before sharing shots of the moody interior and noting that Vespertine is a “miserable, dark trap.”

In the site’s subsequent review, Brant Cox gives the ultimately “dull” experience a rating of 3.2 out of 10. “Walking into the main dining room is like walking into a funeral where everyone’s been told they can’t cry. It’s dark, dreary, and lifeless,” he says. “No one is talking or smiling or even pretending to be enjoying themselves.” And the food, he adds, isn’t incredible enough to make up for it.

At Vespertine, Jonathan Gold makes contact with otherworldly cooking. Is dinner for two worth $1,000? [LA Times]
Vespertine Is Flawed, Frustrating and Fascinating [LA Weekly]
$250 for Dinner, Tradition Not Included, at Vespertine [NYT]
Edible Doom And Gloom: L.A.'s Most Expensive New Restaurant Wants to Depress You for Dinner [THR]
Review: Vespertine [The Infatuation]
The 10 Best Quotes from Vespertine's Yelp Reviews [E]
Vespertine Is the Most Interesting New Restaurant in Years [E]

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