If there was any doubt we are in a gilded age – restaurants like Vespertine would lay that notion to rest. Housed in it’s own glass and metal skyscraper in uber hipster Culver City – with the most confusing and enigmatic web site of all time – Vespertine is so over the top, it reminds me of the part in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where planets were built to order for the universe’s super rich.
And yet – I must admit that I am intrigued. Partly because Executive Chef, Jordan Khan seems to have a confident self contained vision that borders on genuine art, and partly because I am the biggest sucker for a good marketing grift. I still have a decades old bottle of Comme Des Garcon cologne that I’ve never opened because it’s completely shrink wrapped in plastic – the idea that opening it up would ruin the artistic merits of the packaging. I know, I’m stupid!
Dinner at Vespertine is ridiculously expensive – and it takes a big leap of faith to enter this completely uncharted territory. And though I am may be willing, I don’t have many friends (well, I don’t have many friends, full stop) who are ready to suspend their disbelief, surrender themselves to the experience, AND shell out well over $US 300 per person for the privilege.
So when I heard about Destroyer – I was immediately intrigued. Less expensive, vegetable forward, much much more accessible. And best off all, Destroyer seems to be built on the same weird DNA as it’s more ambitious sibling. I figured a meal Destroyer would give me a sense whether Chef Khan’s vision was artistically sound or just plain ole unhinged – without having to suffer through sticker shock in the process.
The first thing you that will strike you about Destroyer – is how small and unassuming it is. There is a handsome work space in the back, but really, the net effect is of a modern Scandinavian coffee shop.
The quiet kitchen produces food that is surprisingly complex – and even more surprisingly – approachably delicious and likable.
The servings bowls are bespoke and gorgeous. A hot metal bowl, attached to a wooden trivet, held a puree of potatoes, mushrooms, topped with a composed gardenscape of carefully selected lettuces and herbs. You dug your spoon deep in the bowl – pulling out layers of poached eggs, potato, mushrooms,and greens – a fresh and satisfying bite.
Roasted cauliflower, poached egg, black garlic topped with crisped chicken skin is hard not to like – the warm soothing textures and deep comforting flavors.
Chicken confit, napped with aged cheese, under a flurry of Yukon gold potatoes is also pure easy comfort food – but the sharpness in execution keeps it from feeling drowsy. Warm but smartly so.
The most interesting dish for me was the beef tartar with pickled mushrooms, and smoked egg creme – all hidden under a tangle of radish sprouts. Raw beef is not something you’d expect on a menu that seems to mostly channel some sort of Arcadia Of The Future (in fact, I spotted Rosalind Chao, of Star Trek fame at another table, which only heightened the sense of retro future optimism). But the sweet cleanness of the beef balanced against the nutty mushrooms and the fresh green bite of the sprouts, made the dish almost feel vegetarian on the palate. Except for, you know, the meat.
Bavarian Creme with powdered raspberries may look shockingly surreal – but the flavors are pure pleasure – sweet, lush, tart and balanced. I am sucker for a lovely Bavarian creme – and underneath the cloak of modernism are good old fashioned flavors, techniques, and discipline.
But really, we should not think of modernist technique and being diametrically opposed to classic cuisine. The goal of cooking should be to give pleasure. Both modernist and classic chefs employ sharp edged discipline in that endeavor, it’s just that modernist techniques are more obvious on the plate. Both schools of cooking explore ideas of seasonality and the fleeting temporal pleasures of food. Both styles can bring alot of intellectual heft to the plate, playing with tradition and culture – but I think it always needs to serve the experience of pleasure, otherwise, what’s the point?
In many ways, the food at Destroyer is a sheep in a wolves’ clothing. The heart of the dishes are meant to please and be enjoyed. I will say that it’s the menu does not quite work if ordered greedily – it’s easy to upend the chef’s narrative when you skip all over the story. The dishes are best enjoyed in a focused manner.
But it’s a terrific experience – and the price point is absolutely amazing – nothing is more than US $20. A steal given the thought, ingredients, and execution that is laid before the diner. And it’s done without pomp or pretense. As Vespertine and Destroyer are located just across the street from each other – it would be easy to make the analogy that they represent opposite ends of our current dining culture. But I think it’s more akin to a dialogue, a conversation about how good food can flourish in different ways.
Now I just need to find some friends to storm Vespertine…