I hear voices, but I can't see who's talking. I can smell the aroma of the food in the noisy pitch-black dining room, but I can't tell if it's coming from my plate or someone else's. Like dozens of others around me, I am dining in total darkness at O.Noir, a four-month-old Toronto restaurant with a stringent lights-out policy. The experience of eating in utter gloom is disorienting and, in this case, a little unsatisfying. But it sure is unique.
Dining in the dark has become one of the quirkier global dining trends since its invention a decade or so ago by a blind Swiss pastor who wanted to create more job opportunities for the visually impaired. Over the years, variations on the theme have popped up everywhere from Melbourne (where diners have been blindfolded) to Montreal (home of Canada's first O.Noir, which employs a blind wait staff and uses blackout shades). Toronto is one of the latest cities to look through a wine glass darkly.
"It's a great concept," another diner said during my evening at O.Noir. "And it could have been good here if the food was better and you didn't have to scream over all the noise."
O.Noir's merits aside, my experience there got me thinking about how fun it could be – especially on a blustery fall night – to host such a meal at home.
As a concept, the idea of suppressing one sense in order to accentuate others may be new in the restaurant world, but it's far from novel. Blind wine tastings have been standard for some time now, allowing samplers to "train" their sense of smell and taste without the impediment of seeing what they are drinking.
The same principle applies to blind food tastings, a common marketing tool. Earlier this year, the brand developers behind President's Choice chose to launch their new Indian hors d'oeuvre collection by inviting media types to intimate dinners across the country. When they arrived, they were immediately blindfolded and led through the sampling.
"We wanted to develop an innovative way to experience these flavours and to be a little daring," says David Primorac, senior director of public relations for Loblaw Cos., which owns President's Choice. "By creating a Dining in the Dark experience, we were able to let touch, smell and taste guide our participants through a culinary adventure."
Toni Batet Collado, the Canadian import manager for Spain's famed Torres winery, hopes to provoke similar sensory epiphanies among clients and journalists as host of the vintner's ongoing series of blind tasting dinners that pair up courses with wines.
"The Torres Blind Dinner aims to emphasize and reactivate those senses that normally remain locked in the background of our experiences," Batet Collado says. "The absence of vision principally enhances our senses of taste, sound and touch, so the balance of flavours, the sound of pepper being ground and the structure and presentation of the food all become heightened.
"All this combined creates a fountain of new sensations, while the wine and its relation to gastronomy acquires a whole new significance and importance."
My visit to O.Noir, which wasn't exactly a tranquil or revelatory one, did inspire me to imagine how I could possibly pull off a similar supper at home. In the spirit of Halloween, I recently did just that, although the experience can be fun (and a serious foodie exercise) almost any time of the year.
Since creating a completely dark setting was virtually impossible in my dining room, I instead dimmed the lights, lit a number of candles and equipped each of my nine guests with night masks. (The candlelight was for me, the server.)
The menu, which included sippable cold soup served in short martini glasses, single lamb chops nestled in wide Asian spoons and finger-friendly desserts, offered a variety of flavour sensations and precluded the need for cutlery.
To reduce the chance of spills, white (not red) wine was served in easy-to-grasp tumblers.
As my guests removed their blindfolds at the end of the meal, all of them (including some who had been at O.Noir with me) agreed that the experience had been a worthy one, even transforming.
Talk about a dark victory.
How to host your own dark night
Keep your dinner party to 10 guests or less. If you can't completely block out light in a room, equip diners with black silk or satin eye masks.
Avoid serving hot liquids such as soup or coffee. Instead, offer cold purées such as gazpacho at the beginning of the meal and iced coffee or aquavit to cap it off. Serve in shot or short martini glasses.
Serve meat or seafood such as individual lamb chops, shrimps or scallops in low wide spoons.
For dessert, serve finger foods such as profiteroles or biscuits in open bowls or small cardboard takeout containers.
Serve water and white wine in tumblers or stemless wine glasses to minimize the chance of spillage and avoid nasty stains if they are spilled.
Play soft music or none at all. One of the points of the exercise is to heighten sounds, such as the creak of the table, the grinding of a pepper mill and even silence.
Sebastien Centner is the director of Eatertainment Special Events in Toronto ( www.eatertainment.com).