Turning off the lights

Dark table 1
Braille…the letters D & T

I’m always up for a good (or at least interesting) adventure, and if that adventure involves a meal, all the better.

But sometimes the meal is the adventure.

Imagine placing a forkful of food into your mouth, and not knowing what to expect?

For example, if you look down at a plate of chicken parmigiana, you see the breaded cutlet, covered in a rich red tomato sauce with little spikes of garlic and flakes of basil and oregano blended in (and you can tell the sauce has cooked for hours), a beautiful crust of mozzarella and Parmesan browned onto the top; some perfectly cooked linguine (maybe, in this case, covered in freshly made pesto, the earthy combination of the herb and the pine nuts coating the pasta); some broccolini to the side, dusted with bread crumbs and garlic butter and parm, and topped with the slightest shaving of lemon zest….a glass of red off to your right and a basket of garlic knots, dripping with oil and parsley and oh-so-much-garlic-but-who-cares-everyone-is-eating-them, resting squarely in the center of the table… (uh oh now I’m hungry….)

Take a forkful–what taste will you get?

If you can see it, you know what to expect.

But now imagine you can’t see any of it.  Sure, you have your sense of smell to rely on, but how would you know the chicken isn’t veal before you taste? Or turkey?  Would you be able to tell? Would you even know it was Parmesan, that the sauce on the pasta was pesto, or that there was lemon on the veg? How would you find those garlic knots??

Imagine if every meal was like that.

A new concept restaurant came to town last year, and I had the opportunity to try it out, not once, but twice.

It’s called Dark Table, and the entire dining experience is different.

The concept is to give people who are sighted the opportunity to experience, just for a little while, what it is like to move around in a world you can’t see.

Luckily for us, it’s a contained, controlled world.

I recruited three good friends–Candace, Deni and Jim–people I’d known and worked with for years–and Jim brought his friend Arnoud, and so we were a table of five to try the Dark Table experience.

From the outside, there’s not much to look at (but if you had no sight, would that matter?).

Standard office building doors, with blackout material on them so you can’t see in; we later learned you can’t see out either, which makes sense, given the theme and all.

The doors open to a small waiting/bar area where you can grab a glass of wine or a beer, peruse the menu, and wait for your friends to join you.  I guess you could do this alone, too, and it might really lend itself to a full sensory experience, as well as the feeling of solitude—what it’s like to be alone in a world of people who are sighted–but I’d recommend sharing the meal (and probably not as a first date).

The area, as I say, is not large, and not very brightly lit, and it’s a little jumbled as the other groups arrive and are settled.  But once your party is complete, everyone is asked to put everything—keys, jackets, phones, purses, everything–in individual lockers, with the key being the only thing you need to bring in.

Before heading in, diners select their meal choices (two courses or three—appetizer and main, main and dessert, or all three) from a menu that includes all the regular selections—beef, chicken, fish, vegetarian—and a daily surprise.  Who knows?  On my first visit (I’ve been twice now) I ordered a mushroom risotto with prawns.

Our server then came to take us to our table (all wait staff and kitchen workers are visually impaired). Placing right hands on the right shoulder of the person in front, we were led to our table.

The server described the space, guided us to our chairs, directed us to where the utensils and glasses were, and generally got us oriented.

Because it is dark.  Pitch dark.  Little eye masks are handed out, but there’s really no need to use them as it is virtually completely dark (ok, there is an exit light somewhere in the room, but my back was to it, so I saw nothing but darkness).

It’s a little disconcerting at first.  There’s noise coming from everywhere. A lot of noise.

But once the five of us were settled, we were able to spend some time listening to the people around us and trying to figure out what the room layout was by following the voices around us. Where was the kitchen?  Who was the loudest? Were the kids in the room? How many tables in front of us, how many behind? How big was the room?

Then we set about exploring.  We all touched the table, to feel its smooth and slightly curved edges.  Was it glass? Possibly, because it stayed cool to the touch.

I asked Jim, who was seated directly across from me, to place his hand in the middle of the table, so that we could get a sense of how wide the tables were.  We met in the middle and we rested our fingers on each other’s, discussing where our elbows were and how far we had to lean in. We moved them from side to side and then back to the middle. It was comforting to feel the warmth of a friend’s hand—a friend whose hand, I guess, I hadn’t so much as brushed against before this. Someone I had worked with for several years, yet here we were, connecting in this way for the first time; maybe this says more about workplace protocol and the friendships that develop than anything else.

So, at a few minutes into the experience, I would say the other senses kicked in…

Sounds: Some really interesting insights into how we hear, and more, importantly how we listen to each other.  When there’s so much else going on in your environment, you have to listen more closely to the person talking to you.  And you have to say their name, which immediately makes the conversation more personal.

It’s hard to tell what’s loud and what’s not.  Was this dining room especially loud, or louder than others? Or was it just because we were relying more on what we could hear? Were we yelling, or speaking quietly?  I didn’t know; I still don’t know.

Touch: It felt somehow more intimate to touch my friends out of need or desire to understand something. Like when Jim and I connected, when Deni passed my wine to me, she and I had to first find each other’s hands before she could pass my glass over.  Now, Deni and I have known each other quite a while, and we had seen each other a few months earlier and had a big hug to greet and another as we said our goodbyes, but this was different.  I needed to touch her, and so, in a weird way, it was a much more personal connection.

Smells: We had chosen a slightly later seating so as we were getting settled, some tables were being served their meals.  As plates passed by, we would get whiffs of incredibly rich meals, but, using the menu as we remembered it from outside, we still had difficulty assigning the options to the aromas.

A nose dropped into a glass wine took it well beyond the simple sniff-and-taste game that gets played when a bottle is uncorked at the table; layers of scents—oak, berries, earth—seemed more intense than ever.

Taste: Holy cow. Either the chef is a master (I’m sure he’s excellent, but…incredible? The best ever? I dunno) or simply the sensory experience of not knowing what to expect is enough to blow you away.

We started with a surprise appetizer, which we think was vegetable crisps with a dip—possibly a garlic aioli.  Every one of us inadvertently put our fingers into it at some point.  Tip: make sure everyone washes their hands before going in!  By then, we were all so into this that I don’t think any of us cared.

Salads were next, and while they were standard (you know, lettuce, some carrot shreds, cukes and a tomato), it’s still quite fascinating to follow your own reaction as you work to recognize the taste of the thing you’ve just put in your mouth, based not only on its flavour but also the texture, and to try to identify the ingredients in the dressing.

The main course? To die for.  The risotto was creamy, full of garlic and parmesan; it was buttery too, and the prawns were bursting with flavour.  I wanted to eat every bite, but was having trouble finding all the grains of rice and the last piece of shrimp, so I simply put down my fork and used my hands.  Who was gonna see? Tip: make sure to keep your napkin well-tucked; you are going to need it.

Dessert was good—not as great as the main course.  Some of us had tiramisu and others a lemon cheesecake (I got the cheesecake, which was good because I am not a big cold-coffee-taste fan).

Oh yes, and that wine with the lovely bouquet?  That was pretty good too.

So, by the time we finished, we were the last table in the dining room—we could tell, by then, that the sounds of the kitchen were different than those of the diners, and that, beyond our conversation, they were the only other sounds to be heard.

Just before we went out, we discussed how long we thought we’d been in there—remember we didn’t have our phones or watches.  Our guesses ranged from two and half to three hours…we went in at 7, so figured it to be 9:30 or 10 pm.

It was 9:10. So although our other senses were heightened, we had lost track of time.

I did this again, with another group of friends, and although I ordered the “Daily Surprise” (they don’t tell you what you’re getting), I wasn’t very surprised by any of it.  I knew what to expect, and I think that changed a lot of my perceptions, and my perspective. It was seemed very busy and much, much louder—again, I am not sure whether this was because the concept had caught on and the room was fuller, or if how I was listening and hearing things was different. I can’t say. I know my dining buddies all loved it.

Would I do it again?  I’m not sure…but if you haven’t done it, give it a try.  By losing your sight for a little while, you’ll open your eyes to a world you might not ever have the opportunity to experience and understand.


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