photo credit: Jakob Layman
If magic were easy, we would all do it. But it’s not. A great magic trick requires setup, precise execution, suspense, humor, and of course, the big reveal that leaves everybody’s jaws on the floor. Which takes us to Culver City, home to the attempt at a magic show that is Vespertine - the over-the-top, pre-fixe restaurant by the Destroyer people. But unlike the truly great magic acts where everyone’s deceived, the only people fooled at this place are the ones who actually go.
Let’s ignore Vespertine’s chef stating in a GQ article that the place “is a machine artifact from an extraterrestrial planet” and one that “has its own gravity” and just say the space and initial setup are actually pretty cool. As you approach the swiveling red building, a cloaked figure (the valet guy) greets you and puts you in an elevator that takes you to a top-floor terrace overlooking the city. There’s an endless supply of white wine with flowers in it, and you’ll eat four or so little dishes like mango and redwood and blackcurrant cookies. For a brief second, you truly like it here. Sure, it’s dramatic and ridiculous, but they’ve committed to it, and there are light sabers on the table. But after about a half hour on the terrace, the evening moves to the main dining room and all that weird, fun magic quickly disappears.
For the amount of neurotic attention to detail that’s been given to every facet of Vespertine, the whole experience ultimately feels dull. 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. No one is talking or smiling or even pretending to be enjoying themselves. Why would anyone actively choose to eat in an environment like this? If your answer is incredible food, know now there isn’t much of that here either.
You’re going to see some beautiful plating and interesting flavor combinations at Vespertine, but at the end of the day, a restaurant needs to provide enough food that still tastes good and this place does not. The giant kelp falls apart the second you touch it and ultimately tastes like dried out soy crackers. There’s a tiny prawn sitting at the bottom of the red spinach dish that’s decent enough, but you have to get through a bowl of very average vegetables to find it. The “endive” dish is so bitter you can’t even tell there’s caviar in it, the turkey with rhubarb had a giant piece of cartilage going through it, and the English pea dish with some sort of frozen grass on top felt weird simply for the sake of being weird. Nothing about Vespertine’s food makes you think or triggers happy memories or even slightly surprises you. Halfway through your nearly four hour meal, you realize there is no grand reveal coming, and that moment where you sit back and say to yourself “OK, this is why I spent $1,200 to be here” never happens. This criticism isn’t about the food being modern or experimental or about whatever futuristic-spaceship-self-masturbatory-storyline you give it. People want to eat things that make them feel good and dining at Vespertine straight up hurts.
Don’t let Vespertine’s website or your snooty food friends or a warlock sitting on the side of the 101 tell you this place is the future. People have been making contrived conceptual restaurants for the extremely rich since the dawn of time, and Vespertine is simply a very bad version of one. This place isn’t magic, it’s a trick. And you have no excuse now to fall for it.
Vespertine’s menu changes frequently, and there are dozens of different dishes. Here are some of the things we ate:
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Blackcurrant and Onion Cookie
This was our favorite dish the entire night and unfortunately, it came at the very beginning. The currant and onion mixed together gives off this slightly spicy but not too bitter combination that worked. We wanted an entire jar of these to take home.
This thing arrives on the table shaped like an upright circle you assume is the portal to the unknown dimension. But it’s not. It’s a very fragile and unremarkable piece of kelp that just tastes like crackers.
Mango And Redwood
A small slice of jelly shaped like a wooden Jenga piece, the texture on this guy is smooth and pretty great. The problem is, there’s almost no taste to it.
Egg Yolk And Sunchokes
If more of Vespertine’s dishes were like this one, our review would be very different. Yes, the egg yolk and caramelized sunchokes flavors worked great together, but more importantly, this was one of the very few things on the menu that actually made you feel good while eating it.
This was a plate with several random components that never mixed well together. There’s a tiny squid hiding at the bottom, which is fun, but unfortunately, it wasn’t very good. A grain salad type thing was also involved, but seemingly had nothing to do with anything.
Turkey And Rhubarb
Putting aside the fact there was a piece of cartilage in one of our slices of turkey, this dish was a clear attempt to bring some soul to the table and we appreciate that. Except it just never got there. This wasn’t an offensive dish, but it also felt very standard and like something you could get a lot of places.
This dish was a complete failure. Arriving to the table looking like a tiny pyramid of peas, nothing about any of the flavor combinations in this worked. The peas tasted bitter, the sauce on the outside was an afterthought, and the whole dish just tasted like cold grass. This was the dish that took our night from not fun to being actually bad.