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For Diners in the Dark, a Taste of Mystery
by Michael Powell
From the Editor: For several years now stories have been appearing in newspapers around the country about restaurants serving meals in the pitch dark. The fad began in Europe and jumped to Canada before arriving in the United States. The first experiments provided jobs for blind people, who acted as guides and servers. All sorts of high-flown justifications circulated about how uplifting it was to experience a social encounter without the distractions of vision. Participants in the experience declared themselves helpless in the dark and newly appreciative of the skills of those who manage without vision every day.
Like most blind people I know, I thought all this just so much silly posturing and assumed that the fad would quickly disappear. The nonsense about providing uplifting experiences and jobs for blind people does seem to have vanished, but the concept of dining in the dark is apparently still alive and well. On April 18, 2003, a reporter for the Washington Post wrote a story about his experience in a New York restaurant that serves a black-out meal once a month. Gone from the event is anyone capable of placing the experience in perspective. The sighted waiters wear night-vision goggles, and the lights come on in time for dessert. The reporter maintains a refreshing degree of cynical amusement as he observes his fellow diners. I, at least, find his attitude refreshingly no-nonsense. Here is the article:
So we're sitting in a trendy little restaurant on another of those Lower East Side streets best known to smack dealers a decade ago, eating tasty dishes that could come with the Ruth Reichl-Gourmet Magazine stamp of approval.
If only Ruthie could see them.
The lighting in this restaurant is not subdued, shaded, or hiply shadowed. It's nonexistent. We eat in can't‑see‑your‑fingers‑in‑front‑of‑your‑face inky darkness. "Oh damn!" says the female voice next to you, as a handful of croquetas de Bacalao apparently collides with her cheek. "I forgot where my mouth was."
It's known as Dining in the Dark, and it's the latest groovy thrill in a city that feels more and more like Imperial Rome circa the Caligula administration. We are among twenty-eight people‑‑most an unfortunate decade or two younger than your correspondent‑‑who have paid $89 per head for the pleasure of groping for our dinner. This restaurant, Suba, serves one such dinner each month.
The evening begins with a $10 drink in the lighted ground‑floor sitting room. Then you clomp down steel steps into the basement of this former tenement. There's a thick black curtain and waiters outfitted like très downtown cyborgs, with their black‑on‑black clothes and night‑vision goggles. One takes your hand and leads you into the darkness.
"The short highball glass is the wine," whispers the now‑disembodied voice. "The long and slender one is for the water." You don't say.
The trend toward inky eating began in Berlin and jumped the Atlantic in the person of Jerome A. Chasques, whose event‑planning company is known as Cosmo Party. He's small, red‑haired, and cherubic, an unflappable man with an accent more Paris than Manhattan. He embraced the idea last year, as he and friends hopped aimlessly from one hip East Village restaurant to another. The free‑range New Zealand quail, the saffron‑soaked Ukrainian artichoke hearts: so predictable. Darkness, he decided, might improve everything and prove profitable.
"It really started like a little game," he explains. "Something out of the ordinary." The search for food edge is relentless in this age of global cuisine. In Europe the First Vienna Vegetable Orchestra has taken to blowing carved‑out carrots, tapping turnips, and clapping eggplant cymbals before serving their instruments à la carte to packed concert halls. And for several years now a few of New York's hipper sushi restaurants have been serving up blowfish, a tasty delicacy whose internal organs‑‑not least their ovaries‑‑harbor a potent neurotoxin that's 1,250 times as powerful as cyanide. Bon appétit.
At Suba we sit at two long communal tables (night‑vision goggles are not flawless, and management endeavors not to have the waiters tripping over themselves). Our neighbors across the table announce themselves by grasping for‑‑I hesitate to use the word "fondling"‑‑our hands. Their voices are high and squeaky and dissolve into gales of giggles. Their dining experience will prove to be . . . nocturnal.
"There's your first course coming over your left shoulder," says the disembodied voice. The waiters don't tell you what's on the plate. Dining in the Dark is all about the sensuality of the texture and palate. The quiver of the unknown makes senses jump like live electrodes. Whatever. Right now that young couple across from us are squealing.
It's just as well they don't give us forks. The first course is‑‑como se dice-‑definitely aquatic, with a piquant hint of something (croquetas de Bacalao with chipotle aioli). In the Stygian dark a glass breaks. Everyone applauds. There are no oils, no soups, and nothing terribly solid served. Knives are out. "For a brief moment," Chasques says, "I thought of serving steak for an April Fool's dinner." Liability issues and an inability to master the Heimlich maneuver dissuaded him.
The wineglass mysteriously refills once, twice, three times during the evening. "Am I drunk?" a male voice asks.
"Aren't you always?" answers a female voice.
Cosmo Party caters to singles, although in fact more than half the diners this night are couples. Chasques says his couples get along better after they've been in the dark together‑‑something about the art of tactile listening. Perhaps. Right now the male voice and the female voice continue to hiss about his drinking.
The second dish comes over the right shoulder. It's phyllo dough and something delicate and‑‑to this diner's view‑‑cheesy (queso de cabra). I identify the third dish as unequivocally fishlike, accompanied by unidentified fungi (salmon à la Plancha with sautéed shiitake). To know whether you're done, one must wave the hand in inelegant circles over one's plate. Should your fingers hit something that moves, eat it.
The finale slides in. A waiter's disembodied hand guides yours to the fork. There's munching and more guessing. "Meat." "Steak!"
"No, lamb!" It's charades at the Helen Keller cafeteria. This is Buñuelos de Cordero, a roasted baby lamb in a phyllo dough beggar's purse. Across the table our giggling young couple has gone entirely silent. The lights go on for dessert, a host of small candles and champagne traipsed in by the waiters. An Israeli film crew has filmed the dinner with an infrared camera. A grinning cameraman walks over and congratulates our young couple. "You looked," he says, "like you were in the back seat of a Chevy on Saturday night."
They smile back beatifically. The undercurrent among the younger diners is unmistakable at Dining in the Dark, if generally PG in content.
Two young men chat about their dinner as they step out onto Ludlow Street. "Dining in the dark was great," says the one.
"Yes," replies the other. "Though normally I know what I'm eating."
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