“Where are you?”
“Is that your knee? Oops.”
“Can you see anything?”
I knew Dark Table would be dark. But I didn’t expect a pitch-black hole. Seriously. The only thing I can see is a shadowy streak of vitreous gel floating across my retina.
Opened in September, Dark Table is the third blind-dining eatery in Canada owned or founded by Moe Alameddine. Even before his O. Noir restaurants were launched in Montreal (2006) and Toronto (2009), the concept had already been done to death in such cities as New York, London and Paris.
Modelled after Zurich’s Blindekuh (German for blind cow), dark-dining restaurants turn the tables on the sense of sight, with blind servers waiting upon visually impaired customers.
As a novelty, Dark Table still manages to thrill. And as a restaurant, the hospitality is genuinely impressive. It’s too bad the food isn’t remotely close to “rivalling some of Vancouver’s best restaurants,” as boasted on the website.
We are greeted by a sighted hostess, perched under a heat lamp wearing a parka. She presents us with a menu and asks us to choose from a two or three-course dinner. The appetizer and dessert options are allegedly “surprises” – unless you’ve visited before. Save for dessert, the menu didn’t change at all from December to January.
On Saturday night (when there are only two seatings), we have to wait outside while the early setting is cleared. As you can imagine, the tables and floor get quite messy.
Under a sheltered patio, we huddle beside fellow diners (mostly young), clutching bottles of sparkling cava and cheap wine. Dark Table is a BYOB restaurant, which is not advertised on its website. For now, there is no corkage fee, although that may change in the near future.
The ambience is nervously giddy, with everyone smiling at each other in hushed anticipation. It feels as if we’re in the lineup for a roller coaster – or a haunted house.
Group by group, we are introduced to our servers. The first night it was Lazare, an amateur singer and social worker from Togo who has no previous experience waiting tables. Tonight, we’re in the hands of a gregarious gal named Amy.
“You’re not blind!” we exclaim, watching her eyes dart behind aviator sunglasses.
No, she’s not totally blind, She has 30 per cent sight. (“It’s like swimming underwater without goggles,” she explains.) Which is a lot more than we can see as we form a train with our hands placed on the shoulder in front of us and choo-choo our way through the front foyer, between a thick curtain and over to our table.
The restaurant has no stairs, but it feels as if we’re descending. Amy puts my hand on the back of my chair, waits until I’m seated, describes everything on the table and encourages us to fondle our cutlery as we orient ourselves.
It takes a special type of person to do this job. Yes, they have to be legally blind. But they also have to have a gentle touch, a sense of humour, a commanding voice, the nimbleness not to knock customers in the head and the graciousness to baby needy patrons while juggling a four-table section.
“Careful. Careful. Careful.” We hear the monotonous refrain over and over as the servers escort their customers to the washroom. (Yes, they’re lit inside.)
By the time the first course arrives, it feels like the restaurant has gotten even darker. We can hear voices from the next table, but it’s all discombobulated. I can’t comprehend a single word.
“Can you put your hands out?” Amy asks as she passes me my plate. So far, so good. I haven’t spilled any water or knocked anything to the ground.
But eating with cutlery feels like a grown-up game of pin the tail on the donkey. For every five stabs, I get one mouthful of food.
The salad consists of kale (firm), roasted red peppers (slimy) and mushrooms (smoky).
“Mmm, Parmesan,” my dining companion notes out loud.
What? Has blindness destroyed my palate? I don’t taste any Parmesan. I take Amy’s advice and start digging with my fingers. Can you imagine if blind people acted like such barbarians in public?
If you’re not freaked out (according to general manager Sami Mousattat, about one customer a week develops a previously undiagnosed case of claustrophobia and bolts out before dinner), dark dining can actually be quite romantic.
In Toronto and Montreal, Valentine’s Day is the busiest night. There are lots of proposals. (“Hope it’s not because the guys are buying their fiancées small diamonds,” Amy cracks.) And a fair share of disrobing. It’s no wonder this voyeuristic experience attracts surreptitious exhibitionists. Unless the server brushes up against a bare breast, who would know?
As a culinary experience, however, Dark Table has much to be desired. The kitchen staff, led by chef Kristina Walgenbach, are not blind and do not cook in the dark – but they might as well.
Although the schnitzel is nicely crisped and the garlic prawns are decently firm, the peppercorn sauce on the beef tenderloin is cold and the gnocchi in creamy jalepeno sauce is gummy.
The food is good enough for a novelty restaurant. And I don’t suppose the menu is the main draw. But it’s true that when you can’t see, your other senses are heightened. This would be a much better experience if it didn’t taste so overwhelmingly bland.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds
**Very good, with some standout qualities
** *Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
****Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution