Sunday, December 20, 2009
Dark Dining: Trimming an Experience
We walked into Opaque, a dimly lit empty nightclub in Santa Monica, California. (There are others in Vienna, Paris, San Francisico and elsewhere. See www.darkdining.com) We are greeted and given menus with limited choices--2 salads, 4 entrees, 2 desserts, wine by the glass only. After choosing the meal, we are introduced to Michael, our guide/waiter/helper, who is blind. I put my hand on Michael's shoulder, Bill puts his hand on my shoulder, and we "elephant walk" into the darkest room I have ever been in except for a cave exploration trip. Yes, what has been trimmed from this dining experience is light, and the diner's ability to see the food, the table setting, the presentation of the food, and one's companion. The theory of the restaurant is that taking away light will enhance the diners' other senses and focus the diners' attention on the taste, texture, and aromas of the food. And yes, they reject all the dogma of the restaurant industry that presentation of the food is important, "we taste first with our eyes."
Michael guided us through sitting down: "Put your hand out. This is the back of your chair. Touch the seat, now move forward a half step and sit down. In front of you on the table is a napkin, wrapped around the fork and a butter knife...." We started with an amuse bouche that was a tiny tomato stuffed with herbs and goat cheese, served on a ceramic spoon, as a single bite. This was the easiest part of the meal! When Michael brought the bread basket, the butter was in a small dish which Bill and I each put fingers in trying to find it, and we eventually just dipped the bread in butter rather than using the knife. The salads were very good, but it took a combination of fork and fingers to get the greens. I was surprised that Michael did not give us orientation to the entree plate. The steak was cut into fairly large pieces, and we did get sharp knives in case we were brave enough to cut it smaller, but we didn't know where the broccoli or the spinach was. Aroma didn't help, since everything was heavily garlicked.
Desserts were both soft (eat with just a spoon) and probably the best food of the meal, but again, there were surprises: the chocolate lava cake was decorated with raspberries which we found after eating the cake, and the mango panna cotta also had
hidden fruit. Michael guided us back to the lobby, where we washed up (very little damage), paid, and departed just as the nightclub part of the operation was getting started.
Did the "trimmed" experience work? The diners definitely focused (hmmm, optics analogy) on each other and on the experience. We tried to guess how many tables there were, what the relationships between the other diners were, why the chefs and designers had made certain choices about the food and the method of presenting the meal, etc.
Unfortunately, the food and the wine were just OK, not excellent, and that interferes with my ability to evaluate the experience of the blind dining. It
was definitely interesting, but too expensive to repeat for the actual dining.
Trimming lesson: In this case, they removed one element of the experience in order to be unique, not in order to simplify the experience. They succeeded in being unique, but the question is still open whether they will be a commercially successful innovation.
You could duplicate this experience at home, if you have a room with no windows, or try it in your city if you have one of the other "Dark Dining" venues. Readers' comments are welcome! Best wishes to all our readers for a happy, healthy, and INNOVATIVE 2010!