Eating dinner in the dark: `What is this?'

Meal's a mystery for diners gathered in pitch-black room at N.Y. restaurant

January 29, 2003|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - It takes a few seconds before I find my plate. First, my fingers touch the slender glass edges, then they brush over four small, crusty balls and a pile of fluffy strands that appear to be vegetables.

All is good until a little wandering lands my thumb squarely in a slightly gritty wetness that I quickly deduce is some sort of gravy.

Around me people begin yelling. "Crab!" "It must be some sort of crab cake!" "And a salad?" "What is this?"

It turns out the appetizer before us is codfish croquettes in a chipotle sauce with some greens on the side. Not that it would have been readily apparent to any of the 35 diners that night, however.

After all, we were surrounded by an impenetrable darkness.

We had ventured to Suba, a cookie-cutter hip restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side, for "Dinner in the Dark" - a meal in a pitch-black room that renders you so blind it can take a harrowing, groping expedition simply to find the bread basket.

The theory is because diners cannot see, they have to rely on their senses of taste and smell and can better focus on those aspects of the food before them. This dining trend has surfaced recently in France, Switzerland and Germany in addition to New York. In Cologne's Unsicht Bar, the entire 50-seat dining room is completely dark and reportedly is so popular there's a six-week wait for a table.

Mitchell Davis, director of publications at the James Beard Foundation, says there is current interest in trends like dining in the dark for a simple reason.

"Food has become banal," he says. "You read the food magazines and it's all about lovely lifestyles and picnics in Tuscany and Paris. People are interested in opening their minds to new experiences."

A few months ago, the Manhattan restaurant Papillon blindfolded diners and served sea urchin infused with herbs. (At the same dinner, waiters also handcuffed people and made them lap up their consomme, but that's another story.) Jerome A. Chasques, head of New York's Cosmo Party, an event-organizing network focused on singles, said he recently introduced his version of dinner in the dark so people could try a different dining experience.

"Your eyes can't help you, so you really have to find out what's on your plate with your mouth," he says. "You have to pay more attention to what you're eating."

Attention to details

Diners also have to pay attention to several other details that any regular restaurant meal wouldn't call for. For the full dinner-in-the-dark experience, we are advised to wear dark or mostly black to blend in, and to go with clothing that can be cleaned easily. And guests are reminded that the dining room has a moat - into which one diner accidentally flung his jacket when he tried to drape it over his chair.

At the restaurant, once the sea of black-clad yuppies has settled in, a manager proceeds to impart information crucial to our coming mission: The squat highball glass holds wine; the tall, slender one will hold water.

Then, steeling ourselves, we make our way to the entrance of a small room sealed off with thick, black curtains. Waiters surface wearing night-vision goggles that bear a certain gulf war je ne sais quoi. They take our hands and gently guide us to our seats.

In the dark, the first thing we notice is how incredibly loud everyone has gotten. We cannot see one another, and all the usual tools in the rituals of interaction - gesticulating, eye contact - are useless. Helplessness sets in when we realize we don't even know if there is bread on the table.

At first, there is pandemonium. Our eyes adjust to the darkness, but still, the room is a vast blackness bursting with strange yells and giggles. We find our glasses and hold onto them for dear life, terrified at the thought of losing them forever in the black void.

The short glass suddenly feels like our best friend.

Across from me is Hernan Amorini, a 26-year-old poet/writer/social-work administrator from Queens. The idea of having a heightened sense of taste intrigued him.

"I'm interested in seeing if, scientifically, it is true," he says eagerly. "Of course, I could blindfold myself at home and eat dinner, but it would not be the same."

At Suba, there is a four-course meal to be had - with the goggled waiters loudly announcing the arrival of each course before setting it down. We are not given knives, and soon enough, we learn that randomly spearing the plate with our forks isn't necessarily the most effective way of picking up food.

With the arrival of the first entree, diners have settled into a rhythm of thoughtful chewing followed by excited utterances. Occasionally, groups start banging their glasses on the table, screaming, "Wine! Wine! Wine!" and, naturally, a few spillages occur.

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