Dining in the Dark: a truly blind taste test

When I decided to experience Dining in the Dark during a visit to Toronto last summer, I expected it to be primarily focused on the sense of taste, with perhaps some olfactory aspects. What surprised me was how much I became dependent on the sense of touch.

In case you're unfamiliar with Dining in the Dark, it's a concept that was started by a blind pastor in Zurich, Switzerland, named Jorge Spielmann, who began blindfolding his dinner guests so they could experience what it was like for him. After he launched a restaurant based on this idea, his innovation sparked a trend that was replicated in cities around the world.

O.Noir brought it to Canada by opening up restaurants here, first in Montréal and then in Toronto. While Vancouver doesn't have a restaurant dedicated to Dining in the Dark, there have been a few events held periodically that replicate the experience. (There's one coming up, which I'll list at the end of this post.)

The Toronto location is located below ground, with a lobby (with lighting so you can see) where you can peruse the menu and place your order before you head into the pitch-black dining room. Selections range from marinated shrimp with herbs to veal al limone. Or you can opt for, as I did, surprise dishes (the chef decides what to give you) so you are truly in the dark about what you are eating.

The restaurant employs blind wait staff, who expertly navigate the room with impressive speed and efficiency. (When my waiter led me into the room with me holding on to his shoulder, I had trouble keeping up with how fast he moved.)

When my food arrived, I began eating with cutlery, but soon ran into problems. The simple act of buttering buns was awkward: I didn't know how much butter was on the knife, I wasn't sure how much or where I had spread the butter on the bun.

When I tried to identify what I was eating, I hadn't realized how much cutlery truly stifles your sense of touch. I could test out the tenderness or hardness of an item, but I couldn't really tell much more beyond that. I resorted to eating everything with my fingers (as did my neighbour) so I could feel the shapes and textures of my food. (Besides, no one else could see what I was doing.)

Trying to recognize the items became an entertaining little game. A lithe, extremely subtly flavoured vegetable? Zucchini. A spongy meat? Chicken. (I kept second-guessing myself about that one for some reason.) On the other hand, a hit of cheese was amazingly sharp and the sweetness of the chocolate mousse became unexpectedly intense.

What was also interesting is that because I went solo, my server had an incredibly hard time finding me. He explained that he relies on hearing people talking, but because I was quiet, he had no idea where I was (and even bumped into some tables, which was unusual for him). Something else that surprised me was that the more the noise from conversations increased in the room, the more isolated I became. When there were only a few conversations, I could pick out specific voices but when the entire room was filled with chatter, it was all a blur. Such small observations certainly made me empathize with what blind people must experience on a daily basis.

If you want to try it out, Dark Dining in Vancouver is going to be held on Saturday, August 27 at Moose's Down Under ( 830 Pender Street). It's being hosted by Eye of the Dragon, a dragon boat team consisting of blind, visually impaired, and sighted members. It's $40 per person and the four-course meal includes a choice of entrées: beef bourguignon in red wine and mushroom sauce, chicken piccata in lemon and caper sauce, or vegetarian moussaka. Try it out for yourself to see how you fare. You might develop a deeper appreciation for things you take for granted when eating.

Follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at twitter.com/cinecraig.

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