Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Under the Cloak of Darkness

Sight. Sound. Smell. Touch. Taste. These are the five senses. When eating out at a restaurant, your meal starts with your eyes; What do see when you walk in the front door? Is the restaurant warm and inviting? What do you smell? What do you hear? Before you even look at a menu your eyes, ears and nose are setting you up for your dining experience. How the food looks, smells, and feels in your mouth is just as important as how it tastes and these are all things taken into consideration when chefs design and execute their culinary creations.

All five senses play an equally important role in your dining experience, so what would happen if one is taken away? What if you could not smell your food? How it tastes would certainly be affected by your loss of smell. Just think about how your meals taste when you have a cold or your seasonal allergies are bothering you. When you can't smell your food, it loses almost all of its taste. What if you could not taste? How the food feels in your mouth would certainly be affected, especially if you can smell it without tasting it. If you could not hear, part of the excitement of eating in a restaurant would be missing. You could not hear the sounds of the kitchen or the sounds of other diners enjoying their meal. You could not hear sounds of forks, knives, and spoons scraping and sweeping across the plates. Now what if you could not see what you are eating? How would your sense of smell, taste, touch and sound be affected?

Before you take your first bite, your eyes play an important role in setting your expectations for what you are about to eat. When I ate sheep brains in India earlier this year, my eyes told me that I was eating brains, there was no doubt about it. My sense of touch played an important role in my experience as well; the brains were soft and creamy and the texture was entirely unfamiliar. The taste of the sauteed brains was insignificant in the overall experience; they were quite mild in flavor but the sight and feel of the brains on my tongue and in my mouth is what I remember most. Without seeing the brains first, seeing the very familiar shape and contour of what is undoubtedly brain, the experience would have been completely different.

I am fortunate that my job takes me to many interesting and unique places in this world and India is certainly one of them. Earlier this month while in Berlin, Germany I had an amazing dining experience that is becoming more and more popular with each passing day. More people are hearing about it, more people are experiencing it. The "it" is eating in complete darkness. Known as dark restaurants or blind restaurants, they can actually be found all over the world and in most, the entire staff is either blind or visually impaired. I first heard about one in Zurich called blindekuh, or Blind Cow,  when a friend visited and gushed over the whole experience. Then, shortly after I heard about blindekuh, I was watching Hell's Kitchen on FOX and Gordon Ramsay took the red team to Opaque in Santa Monica, another dark restaurant. Knowing about blindekuh in Zurich I was hoping for a trip to Switzerland in the near future that would allow me to try the restaurant but things fell into place when I arrived in Berlin a few weeks ago.

Hanging outside of the elevator at my hotel was a small board displaying small business cards for all sorts of restaurants and tourist attractions in the city. One of the business cards was for a dark restaurant called unsicht-Bar. Unfortunately they were fully booked during the few days I was in the city but one of my colleagues discovered another dark restaurant in the city called Nocti Vagus, and booked us an 8pm reservation on our last night in the city! I was so excited, I could not wait!

As my colleague Jenny and I arrived at the restaurant, I immediately began scanning the restaurant with my eyes, knowing that I will soon be in complete darkness. I want to see as much as I can in the lit spaces of the bar before entering the completely dark dining room. The bar area was dimly lit with dark chocolate brown walls accented with vanilla creme trim. The wall behind the half-circle bar sports several glass shelves displaying top shelf liquor attached to a painted-white brick wall. As Jenny and I sit at the bar, we are handed a menu with four choices: vegetarian, seafood, meat, or a surprise chef's menu which I'm told will be created based on my likes and dislikes. I will eat just about anything and am not afraid to try new things so I decided that I would allow the chef to create a surprise meal for me - I did not want to know what I was eating until after I ate it. Would I be able to tell what I was eating? Knowing what was on the vegetarian and seafood menus I would soon regret my chef's surprise menu choice as it was heavy on meat, but the food was good and the experience was amazing. Just before entering the pitch black dining room, Jenny and I were informed that our server's name is Wolfgang and we'll be seated at table 12R; the dining room is downstairs.

So we follow our hostess down the stairs to a long hallway with doors to the men's and women's bathrooms, both lit, and a door at the end of the hallway which we enter on our way to the dining room. This waiting area is like an airlock for light. There is a soft, dim rectangular panel that lights the small irregularly shaped room. We are informed that when the door on the other side of this closet-sized room opens the light will turn off and Wolfgang will great us, he will guide us to our table where we will be sitting side-by-side, not across from each other. Our hostess asks Jenny to stand behind me and place both her hands on my shoulders, this is how we will enter the dining room. She knocks on the door three times, the light shuts off, the door opens, and we are introduced to Wolfgang. Hello, Wolfgang.

Wolfgang takes me by my right forearm and leads us to our table; I feel folds in what I think is a carpet beneath my feet, the room is completely dark, there is absolutely no visible light, I can not see my left hand if I place it on my face. I am giddy and excited as my body tries to adjust to the darkness. The floor feels uneven and slanted under me as we walk to the table. We sit and the meal begins. Wolfgang first delivers us each a glass of prosecco and informs us that if we put the glass down on the table, we should place our hand on the edge of the table in front of us and slowly slide it onto the table in order to find our glass again. I quickly adjust to this new way of reaching for a drink as Wolfgang disappears into the darkness. Then, as if out of nowhere, we hear "Helloooo, helllooooo! I have some bread for you with a dipping sauce, your first course will be out soon" And again, Wolfgang fades into the darkness. We hear him on the other side of the dining room, he has a very distinct voice; we hear forks, knives, and presumably spoons clanking against the dishes that none of us can see. We hear voices, some loud, some soft, some close, some far, how far we wonder? How big is this dining room? Is it square, round, triangular? We have no idea how many people are sitting in total darkness. One thing that made this especially interesting for me was that being in Berlin, everyone was speaking German! I had no idea what others in the dark were talking about. Were they wondering aloud the same things that Jenny and I were discussing? Did they love the sweet, creamy bread dip as much as we did? What was it? What kind of bread were we eating? It was a hearty bread, thick, soft slices of what seemed like a multigrain bread; and the dip, it was delicious but we could not discern what made it taste so good.

Again, we hear "Helloooo, helloooo! It's Wolfgang, I'm hear with your first course. For you, [speaking to Jenny,] you ordered the meat menu, and for you, [now speaking to me as he shuffles around Jenny to my right side] you have ordered the chef's surprise menu. Enjoy!" And poof, Wolfgang disappears as quickly as he came. Not being able to see what I'm eating, I feel my food with my hands to see if I can determine what it is. It is cool to the touch, and wet. I take a bite, it's definitely some sort of meat, or is it? When I told the hostess I would eat anything, she asked if that included raw meat like steak tartar; yes, anything I repeated. So is this steak tartar that I have? There was a distinct fruity essence that I could not identify along with some salad greens that felt and tasted a bit like watercress, or maybe lamb's lettuce. It was good, but not great. The experience of trying to figure it out, however, was exhilarating.

"Hellloooo, helloooo!" says Wolfgang as he sneaks up on us once again. "How was your first course? Good, I have your second course here." Our first course plates are removed and replaced with our second course, for Jenny, more meat and for me...unknown. At that moment, I again feel around on my plate to see what I'm dealing with. I feel two chunks of meat? Oh man, more meat?! If I wanted all meat I would have ordered the meat course. Under the two chunks of what I think is meat I feel something creamy, small discs of some yet to be determined vegetable in a viscous sauce along with what felt like some wilted greens. I pick up a chunk of meat and take a bite, it is flavorful and tender, is it beef? Lamb? I think it's lamb, definitely lamb, and it's good. The creamy discs below must be potatoes, a warm German potato salad maybe? Well, I guess since I'm in Germany it would just be called potato salad. And the wilted greans, don't know what they are but they taste good. It's not spinach. The consistency is that of wilted romaine, but in Germany, it can't be romaine, can it? Well again, its good, but not great. The joy is in trying to figure out exactly what I am eating. Fortunately I will find out what I ate at the end of the meal.

At this point it's around 9pm and you're wondering how I know this since there are no visible clocks and I have willfully resisted the urge to look at my watch which has illuminated hands. I know its 9pm because the live show is starting! Besides the draw of eating in the dark, Nocti Vagus has live shows each night and this night it is a live band. It sounds like a two, maybe three piece band and they sing covers. Some German and some English songs - they played a Prince song, and very well I might add. The band's instruments are plugged in and amplified but we can not see any lights or flashes to indicate this. As the band wraps up their final song Wolfgang sneaks up on us again! "Hellloooo, hellloooooo! It's Wolfgang. Did you enjoy your second course? How about the show?" "Yes, thank you Wolfgang. Everything was great," we say. "Okay, I'll be right back with your final course. Would you like anything else to drink?" "Yes, please, two more glasses of prosecco." And Wolfgang disappears into the darkness once again.

"Hellooo, hellooo. I have your final course here. Your spoon is at 12 o'clock. Enjoy!" As Wolfgang is about to place my plate on the table I simultaneously reach for my spoon expecting that I will need it and Wolfgang puts the plate down on my arm, almost dropping it. "Sorry!" I say and quickly retract my arm. Once the plate is safely on the table in front of me, I again go feeling around with my fingers. What I feel is a round form of something gelatinous and what can only be described as some whipped cream next to it. There is no question what real whipped cream feels like and one bite confirms my suspicion. On top of the whipped cream is something that feels an awful lot like mint and one taste leads me to believe that it is some sort of mint. The gelatinous form on the plate is chocolatey, rich, and nutty. Is it hazelnut? I think so. We finish our meals and call Wolfgang over, letting him know we are finished and ready to leave.

With my hands placed firmly on Jenny's shoulders this time, Wolfgang leads us to the exit. Again, the floor feels uneven and slightly sloped, but is it really? In the lightlock room, we meet Wolfgang in the light. He has less hair than I expected but he doesn't look that much different than I pictured him. Jenny told me he looked nothing like she expected. We shook hands and thanked him before leaving the small staging room for the long hallway back to the stairs leading to the bar.

Once back in the bar, we settle our bill with the kind woman who brought us to the dark dining room earlier in the evening and I learn what it was I had eaten. First Course: Lamb Tartare with Plum Vinaigrette. Second Course: Herb Crusted Veal with potato salad and some word I can't remember and didn't write down [German cabbage]. Third Course: Chocolate Almond Mousse with Whipped Cream and an Edible Flower. My suspicions were incorrect for the stars of both my first and second courses, and I misjudged the nut in my chocolate mousse. Either way, this was an amazing dining experience and even though I wasn't thrilled about eating so much meat, I loved it anyway. I can't wait to try this again in another city, preferably one where the general population speaks English!

I was not sure what to expect going in other than that my other senses might be heightened in the absence of sight. I was constantly repositioning my head trying to use my ears to triangulate my position in the unfamiliar space. My eyes were always scanning the darkness, darting back and forth, searching for any sign of light to remind me they still worked. And even though Jenny and I chatted throughout the entire meal, I was quite conscious of the fact that I was not always looking in her general direction. I was looking this way and that way, listening, searching, wondering. I became more aware of my sense of touch, relying on it to give me hints of what I was about to eat. My sense of taste, felt depressed. I was never certain of what I was eating, except for the potatoes and parts of my dessert. 

Jenny and I discussed our excitement and our interest in the whole experience. We were constantly trying to determine the number of diners, the size of the room, and our position in the room relative to the door through which we entered. We were trying to figure out what was on each others plates. We couldn't seem to agree on where the entry door was but we could agree on one thing with absolute certainty - we had an amazing time eating in the dark!

If you are interested in hearing about one person's experience at blindekuh in Zurich, have a listen to this audio postcard from NPR producer Adam Burke.

Better yet, if you live in one of these following cities, go experience dining in the dark yourself: San Diego, San FranciscoLos Angeles, Toronto, Montreal, London, Paris, Barcelona, Berlin, Zurich Prague, Moscow, Tel Aviv or Melbourne. There are even dark restaurants in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong where unlike the rest of the world, the waitstaff wear infrared goggles. If you do your own research, you will even find that there is a restaurant in New York where you can eat in the dark, except at this Greenwich Village spot, CamaJe Bistro, you wear a blindfold, what fun is that?! But fear not, citizens of New York, Dans le Noir of London, Paris and Barcelona will be opening a new restaurant in Manhattan in April 2010!

Have you dined in the dark? Tell me about your experience eating without sight.


  1. Hello, Wolfgang. :)

    Thanks for sharing that account, I really enjoyed reading it. I especially related to your eyes darting about and wondering about the accuracy of your spacial awareness during the experience. I felt very much the same when I went to Blindekuh in Zurich. One thing that was also interesting for me was that after 10 minutes of my eyes getting used to the darkness, I started to feel calm and peaceful. Like a mini vacation from one of my senses...definitely enhanced the awareness of the other senses. I also found that my posture was very different than it would have been normally. I cocked my head more to listen and found that I didn't necessary face the person I was talking to. I think it would be very cool to see a video of our own body language while we dine this way. I wonder if the infrared goggled waiters in Hong Kong and Shanghai could record video of diners too. Would be so interesting to see what we look like when we don't even think about how others see us in our interaction. I also noticed how different my friends voices and intonation sounded than when I see them in full animation and sound. It was like getting to know my friends in a different "light" :) I'm curious about other people's experiences too... again thanks for sharing!

  2. i've been wanting to try one of these restaurants. this was really well written and i felt like i was there experiencing every bite, touch, taste, texture, ambiance with you :] will be thinking of you whenever i finally get to try one of these places!!

  3. Hi Marina :) I agree, it would be a lot of fun to watch our body movements on a night vision video. I think part of really enjoying the experience was knowing that the wait staff couldn't see either. I think the experience would be totally different in Hong Kong or Shanghai where the waiters can actually see their way around with their goggles. Must be fun for them though!

  4. Hi misstiffie, thank you for your comments, it truly was an amazing experience and I'm glad to have shared it. Please let me know when you get a chance to go, the ones on the west coast have received good reviews. I honestly spend your money on the place in New York; being blindfolded will most definitely not be the same!

  5. I was the one food guys companion on this trip and the thing that struck me the most was it really showed me how difficult it is to be blind, I think we have all tried at some point when we are kids to close our eyes and walk around, but this room was complete and utterly dark, more dark than anywhere I have ever been. I ate all my meals with my fingers after having spent 2 frustrating minutes in the first course trying to put food onto my fork. By the time I found the food, put it onto my folk and lifted it to my mouth I had dropped it. Scott found this very amusing and seemed to have much better coordination than me.
    I am a ridiculously faddy eater so terrible at not trying things that do not look good, this restaurant changed that, the first two courses were not great but the desert was amazing and the experience is one I will never forget.
    It also reminded me to not judge a book by its cover, the people opposite us who we talked with and the waiter looked nothing like I expected them to look. My only regret is that we did not sneak back and see the actually room in the light, we could have been eating in the broom closet for all we knew 