February 8, 2018
I arrived at the glowing spaceship that houses Vespertine with a large chip on my shoulder. Everything I’d read about the place put me off. I was even irritated by the message that arrived with my reservation. “Checking in with the valet before dinner is required, as this member of our team is integral to your experience.’’ I’m not even there yet, and already there are “requirements.”
Indeed, when said valet insisted my first stop be the outdoor garden, I balked. It was dark. It was cold. I wanted to go inside that strange perforated orange building. But he led me, inexorably, to a concrete seat and very reluctantly, I sat down. The seat was heated! A soft fuzzy blanket was draped around my shoulders. The air was fragrant. Against my will I found myself snuggling in for a glass of champagne. By the time my guide gently suggested it was time to enter the edifice I was loath to leave.
Dinner at Vespertine involves a fair amount of traveling. Your guide directs you to the elevator and you exit through the kitchen where otherworldly music plays as a team of eerily silent cooks ply tweezers. The substances they are working with do not resemble food, and the vessels they are so carefully placing it on do not resemble any plates or bowls you’ve previously encountered. Then you are outside again, climbing steep stairs to a dark lounge whose low tables are covered with twigs, candles and branches draped with strange black objects. It is like a campground on Mars.
The first offering is some sort of Douglas fir and white wine beverage topped with oxalis (a wood sorrel). That green concoction in the bowl starts off strange and becomes increasingly appealing; laced with tiny roe, it is like taramosalata conceived on Pluto. By the time I’d finished using it as a dip for the various sea vegetables (those black objects hanging from the twigs) I was sorry to see it go.
But here comes the waitress, gliding silently to the table with the next course. Pull this little volcano apart and you find the most delicious cracker you’ve ever eaten, a kind of savory sable made of burnt onions and black current.
“I love this!” My companion says it with a kind of shock.
We both love the next course too, layers of green gage plums and apples, a sticky, gooey little treat that we pry from its ceramic tower.
We love this too, this dark cracker topped with abalone mushroom.
We’ve grown comfortable here, but now it seems it’s time to journey on to another galaxy on another level. I’m actually disappointed to discover that the dining room resembles… a dining room. It is disappointingly conventional, filled with ordinary people conversing as they eat their dinner. And then the food arrives.
Inside this spruce-sprinkled bowl are raw peas, kiwis cut to the same dimensions and a third little unidentifiable orb that is both sweet and sticky. On top is a little round of frozen salad dressing that slowly melts. It is delicious.
“The bowl is meant to activate your senses other than sight,” the waitress says as she sets down this peek-a-boo bowl. I could have done without the lecture, but hidden inside that giant maw is the most wonderful rice pudding laced with little texture bombs – popped rice, tiny roe – and topped with onions and sunflower petals. I find it irresistible.
A virginal wedding feast? An essay on whiteness – smooth scallops, crisp white asparagus, fuzzy blossoms, crunchy shrimp crackers. When the pale yuzu -pine broth is poured into the bowl, all the textures meld, melt, change.
This dish looks like as strange and alien as a large red slug, but in the mouth it’s utterly familiar. A gorgeously cooked spot prawn paired with the sweet crunch of water chestnut, the edgy acidity of quince, the electricity of sorrel and spinach. More please.
Jordan Kahn is an interesting chef. Unlike most of those who work in this particular idiom, he’s more artist than scientist. Unlike Ferran Adria, who revels in taking food apart and putting it back together in ways that twist your perceptions, Kahn works in a gentler mold. He’s trying to make you experience food in new ways, playing with color, texture and shape to coax out shy flavors. His is an art of combination, not reduction. Against my will I slowly allow myself to be seduced.
Mussels and pork fat.
Dungeness crab and leeks.
Naragansett turkey, with a complex sauce made of bones and currants. Hyssop. It arrives on long branches of yarrow, looking like Thanksgiving in the middle of winter. (It took an effort of will not to pocket that knife.)
Smoked lamb’s heart, Marionberries, puffed rice, fresh cheese
Sea urchin with Pedro Jimenez sherry. A dessert for people who don’t like dessert. Pure heaven.
Black raspberry, sorrel and frozen buckwheat. Even the edges of the bowl are meant to be eaten.
The meal is long, slow, measured. It is delicious. It is entertaining. Some people will hate this restaurant, and I understand that. But I’m fascinated by chefs who are pushing the envelope as they reconsider the very nature of what a restaurant might be. Vespertine offers up the restaurant as performance art, and they’ve enlisted the help of artists, architects and musicians to enhance the experience. Kahn’s certainly not the first to do it, but he’s moved the concept farther down the road. This kind of cooking often ends up with extremely stupid food. And that’s the surprise of Vespertine: there is nothing remotely ridiculous about the food.
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