Space: the final frontier of destination fine dining
Making holiday plans around a specific restaurant is now common practice. Lists including the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and the Top 100s compiled by laliste.com and opinionatedaboutdining.com have brought international renown to high-end restaurants that might previously have been known about only locally. Such exposure puts them on the radar of switched-on foodies in Britain and around the world.
Since it was first named the world’s best restaurant in 2010, Noma in Copenhagen, with its menu of foraged Nordic ingredients, has epitomised the “destination restaurant”. But Noma closed in February, and although chef Rene Redzepi plans to relaunch it in a new “urban farm” setting on the edge of Copenhagen, there was something symbolic about Noma’s last supper.
Fine dining at the highest level is fashion-led and needs to reinvent itself constantly. Hence the launch of Vespertine (vespertine.la), a radical new California restaurant that has turned the “farm to fork” trend on its head. Chef Jordan Khan has eschewed bucolic, romantic notions of food plucked fresh from the field for something… well, out of this world. According to its website, “Vespertine is a place of cognitive dissonance that defies categorisation, exploring a dimension of cuisine that is neither rooted in tradition nor culture… from a time that is yet to be, and a place that does not exist”.
It does exist – on a rather drab yet hip stretch of semi-industrialised road in Culver City, 10 miles west of Downtown Los Angeles. Luxury country house hotel it isn’t, although it does occupy a striking, red reticulated steel “waffle” building designed by LA architect Eric Owen Moss. Chef Khan describes it as “a machine artefact from an extraterrestrial planet that was left here like a billion years ago by a species that were [sic] moon worshippers”.
The 20-course meal (or “dining experience in four acts”) costs $250 (about £190) a head and can last up to five hours. It is a theatrical and avant-garde affair, which early reviewers have made sound more like Matthew Barney’s experimental art films than dinner. Khan greets his guests at the elevator door, silhouetted by bright light; front-ofhouse staff in androgynous sack-like uniforms effect a blank, robotic attitude; a specially commissioned ambient soundtrack plays throughout and the food is rendered unrecognisable in dishes resembling tiny modernist sculptures. For example, the halibut appears to be an empty black bowl.
Whether this sounds appealing is debatable, and critics have had mixed feelings. “The meal felt quite like torture,” wrote Besha Rodell in
while also declaring a dish of yucca, almond and caviar to be “playful, gorgeous and delicious”.
What Khan has done is pull the rug from under the local, seasonal foraging pack and left them looking decidedly last century. He has realised that diners want a great meal less than a great anecdote. Try telling someone about the exquisite, vivid flavours and matchless ingredients of
Vespertine’s ‘modernist’ white asparagus