Monday, 19 November 2012

It's Better in the Dark

GOOD LORD. I have been gone far too long. That's what happens when you move and start three jobs all at the same time, plus have no internet at home! But I'm back, and with a vengeance. My own cooking pursuits have been fabulous ever since we got a new grocery store in Kingston called Farm Boy. Of course all the Kingstonians think it's too pretentious and expensive, but I love it. It's the one place in town you can find duck breast, mangoes, kale, and gouda all in the same place. My love and I have been cooking up a storm.

But today I am writing about something else entirely: a dining-out experience that I had this weekend. My lovely and gorgeous friend Sabby is getting married next year, so this weekend was Bride Day. We went to three lovely bridal salons in Toronto to look for dresses, and this was to be followed by a surprise dinner at the restaurant of Sabby's choosing. All we knew was that it was going to be in the Church&Wellesley neighbourhood, so I thought we were going to a gay cabaret. Which would have been awesome. But I was wrong, and we went somewhere even awesome-er:

The restaurant is called O Noir. You can check their website out here. For the foodies out there, you've probably heard of the concept. It's all about dining in the dark. I had heard of the restaurant several years ago and thought it sounded super cool. But I also thought you'd be able to see, at least a little bit. I was wrong.

The restaurant, first of all, is underground. You descend a set of stairs as though you're going into a subway tunnel, and suddenly you are in a sort of anteroom that is lit normally. It has the host stand, a bar, a till, and a gigantic wall display of the Braille alphabet. Here is where you peruse the menu. You can choose either two courses or three courses, and it was pretty reasonably priced. I chose to do two courses and that was $32. Some of the options were grilled octopus, roasted vegetable salad, beef tenderloin, etc. Standard fare. But there are also "surprise" options for each course. So naturally I chose to do the surprise starter and the surprise entree, because I wanted to pretend like I was doing the palate test of Hell's Kitchen. And also because I eat absolutely everything and I wanted to really take the experience of dining blind for what it was.

After choosing the menu, you and your party are guided to your seats. You have to line up and hold hands as the waiters lead you to your chair and touch your shoulder when you should sit. The waiters are all visually impaired, by the way. This explains their comfort in the dark, but their adeptness is astounding. I've been serving for years and still my hands tremble with a full tray. I just can't imagine doing it with no sight at all.

So anyway. It's actually the absolute darkest room I've ever been in. "Our eyes will adjust," our party said before we went in. That's actually false. There is no ambient light coming in from anywhere at all, so two hours later I saw as little as I did when I first walked in. Not even my hand in front of my face. We were passed our beverages by our waiter Gavin (who was amazing, by the way) as he touched our shoulders and indicated where to reach our hands out. "The first five minutes will be crazy," he said. It was true. All the voices in the room were terribly loud, perhaps because our lack of sight heightened our other senses or perhaps because everyone's voice were raised with anxiety.

Our starter was delicious. It was a salad of greens and warm roasted vegetables, with goat cheese and pesto (I think?!). I thought it was zucchini, but it was actually beets. Gordon Ramsay, I fail. The entree was also tasty: chicken with green beans and potatoes. I wish I could be more descriptive than that, but I didn't even know what it was until I left. I thought it was pork. Whoops. Tasty though it was, my inner Iron Chef was hoping for truly weird ingredients like offal or something. Oh well.

The best part, though, was the experience of dining in blindness. Our fingers had to navigate our plates to find the morsels. In the dark, without judgment, some of us licked our plates. We got butter on our hands by accident. Nobody spilled anything, but only just barely. Our conversation was animated and constant because we weren't distracted by other people, our cell phones (strictly verboten), or the decor. We were vulnerable. We wrestled with perceived limitations. We were in awe of the agility and ability of the "impaired" folks who served us. And it tasted so damn good. 

(And, as a restaurant industry veteran myself, I have to say that when the server is the one with total control, that is not such a bad thing. Diners be ware.)

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