the nothing whatever...

Dining in the Dark

Dining in the Dark is exactly what it says it is, but behind it lies such a brilliant concept that I wish I was the first to come up with it. The experience works on two levels of depth at the same time, the more obvious culinary one that involves guessing the flavors and the ingredients used and eating gourmet food with your senses of smell, touch and taste amplified, but it is also about offering a little insight into the lives of those who are blind or visually impaired, and the difficulties they face on a day-to-day basis. This is made evident in the fact that all the waitstaff who work in the pitch-black room that is the restaurant are, themselves, blind or visually impaired. How unbelievable their abilities actually are is never more evident than in the several times you find yourself completely incapacitated and reliant on their help.

It was pouring the night we went to the restaurant, and, determined to adhere to its theme, its location is impossibly hard to find, so we were soaked by the time we arrived. We were given a complimentary Sangria and we were all smiles again, before being sat in the trendy dimly-lit foyer and explained the premise of the restaurant and what you are likely to feel being shrouded in darkness, which I took as all precautionary in case you were someone prone to freaking out at the slightest discomfort. We were then given a blindfold and a small glass of grain that contained four paperclips, and, as a means of acclimatisation, we were asked to find the paperclips without the use of our eyes. It only really dawned on me how difficult this might actually be when it took me fifteen minutes to find them all, and I became a little nervous about how embarrassing it would be if dinner took us into the early hours of the morning. I would be eating alone by then though, because Nic found them in about three minutes flat.

We met our waiter who asked us to form a train holding onto each others shoulders, and we were walked through the doors of the restaurant and into the black. It was when we were weaving our way through the tables that I understood why the preliminary explanations were needed about your likely state of mind. Although I was able to control it in the same way that one controls their urge to panic when their limbs are restrained, it is almost like a form of claustrophobia, as if the dark is something visible and tangible and is smothering you from all angles. Not being able to see your own body also seems to induce a sense of uneasiness as well, your self-preservation instincts temporarily going haywire because they no longer can see the “self” and thus assume you are in constant danger.

After he seated us and took our drinks order, I was no longer sure whether my eyes were open or not and I kept having to blink them to try and see if I had unknowingly closed them. We could here the soft clattering and murmured whispers of the other disembodied voices discussing their food around us, but had no idea about the shape of the room, the amount of seating, the color scheme of the tables, anything at all. A voice in my ear scared the life out of me when it said “Ben, I am just putting your beer to the top right of your plate”. Things started getting weird when we had to devise a safe way to pick them up by crawling our hands spider-like across the table, with Nic missing her mouth by a mile and pouring it down her front, then being unable to clean herself up. I was having difficulty keeping tabs on what my body was doing in its effort to absorb the most sensory input, my head kept unconsciously turning the ears towards Nic so I had my chin nuzzled into my shoulder, and despite efforts to keep them open, my eyes kept closing, my body shutting off any useless sensory devices I guess as a means of saving energy. If the lights happen to flick on I would imagine I would have looked a little bit like a sleeping seagull.

After about another five minutes, our three entrees came out side-by-side on a rectangular plate with raised separators in the middle so we could determine where one dish started and the other finished. Our initial instincts were to go for the fork and spoon (they did not provide us with knives, a wise decision), but it quickly became apparent that not only was a stabbing utensil useless if you could not see what you needed to stab, but a scooping utensil scatters your food across various unknown regions of your plate, meaning you would get about two mouthfuls and then you would be scooping at thin air, the food being so dispersed that it would just seem to disappear. The good part about this is that, just when you thought you had finished…”oh, hello there”, another little haven of deliciousness stored in a part of your plate you had not yet thought to search in. But, if you are like me and just want to hoover it into your face as quickly as possible, the process is somewhat tedious, like disarming landmines in a field. So, contrary to all fine-dining tradition, we abandoned our utensils and our respectability and got stuck into it with our mits.

The food was unbelievable, and without your sense of sight all emphasis is redirected to how it feels on your tongue, its shape and texture and, obviously, its taste. We had a vegetable soup dish that had small pieces of diced carrot, and it had never been as noticeable to us as it was then that each cube was so perfectly cut, cube after cube of the exact same proportions. Not one for aesthetics, I always found that sort of perfectionist finesse to be a bit wanky, being of the opinion that the taste of “perfectly diced carrot” and “roughly grated carrot” are essentially the same. But when you merge the looking and the tasting functions into one, the feel of the food on the palette suddenly becomes a big part of why you like it. I love caramelized onion, but I was less a fan of that as I was the cubes of carrot, simply because of the difference in texture. There was one chicken dish I enjoyed so much that I bent my head down and licked my plate clean of its sauce, something that I would never get to do in a high quality restaurant without numerous pairs of scornful eyes judging me mercilessly.

At one point, in between courses, I started to get the feeling that my eyes were adjusting, thinking that I could see the wall we were sitting adjacent to and the outline of my own hand as I waved it in the air. I asked Nic to hold up her hand, trying to confirm if it was my imagination, and as I sat there, squinting as hard as I could into the darkness around her general location, her fingers whacked me lightly on the forehead and nearly made me fall backwards in my chair. Her hand had been literally an inch from my face the entire time, meaning that everything I was seeing must have been just what my mind was approximating, my visual cortex doing the best it could with the information at hand. This was confirmed later when the waiter told us the wall that we were sitting against was actually pitch black, so there was zero chance I would be able to see it without any light shining directly on it. I would imagine it is the build up of that sort of mental visual representation of his surroundings that allowed the waiter to navigate the room with such ease, weaving his way between tables while carrying drinks and meals with the absence of any form of walking aid.

We walked out of there the same way we walked in, via human train with the lead carriage being the waiter and his super human senses, and he told us to open our eyes extremely slowly or put our hand in front of them as the light in the foyer was now going to seem as bright as the sun. We were handed our menu, and finally found out exactly what we had been eating, all those unidentifiable ingredients that we had tasted but couldn’t quite pick becoming agonizingly obvious to us. All-in-all it cost us $40 AU each for the entire experience, a splurge for us, but one that I would happily repeat given the opportunity, and something that every food lover should have on their bucket list.