‘Dining in the dark’, or ‘dining blind’, originated in Switzerland, where blind waiting staff were trained as waiters in a blindekuh (‘blind cow’) restaurant, where diners would sit and eat in pitch black. Other than being a commendable form of employment for the visually impaired, the concept is said to heighten diners’ sense of taste and smell. The dining in the dark trend has since taken off across the world.
Some restaurants follow the model of employing blind staff, while some feature waiters wearing night-vision goggles, and others (not being particularly well-conceived) simply result in a great deal of mess and clattering crockery. While there’s not a blindekuh equivalent in Dubai, Nineteen at The Address Montgomerie is dimming its lights this week for a unique blind tasting experience. Taking place on May 31, diners will have the chance to try a four-course meal, but they won’t be able to see what they’re eating – they’ll have to rely on their sense of taste alone.
Gimmick aside, the concept is intriguing on many levels. Not only does the loss of vision accentuate taste, but it steals away so many other aspects of a dining experience: the ambience of the restaurant, the state of the tableware, the presentation of the food, the people watching, all of which are nearly as important to the all-round experience as the quality of the food itself.
What’s more, the concept takes the power away from the diner. Not only are you unable to see what you’re eating, but you can’t chose your meal (knowing what’s on the menu would defeat the object). While allergies are accounted for, there’s a good chance that the set meal will take diners outside their comfort zone, exposing them to foods that they might not otherwise order. In this respect, diners are placing themselves in the hands of the chef and the staff, which is a big ask.
Cynical and intrigued to equal measure, I visited Nineteen to sample what lies ahead on May 31.
All this talk of trust may sound a little over the top, but no sooner have I slipped the blindfold on than I’m overcome with an immediate sense of vulnerability. Everyday noises such as the clink of cutlery or padding footsteps sound alien, almost threatening. What’s more, I’m amazed how easy it is to lose my bearings. What had appeared to be a very straightforward table setting takes an eternity to get to grips with. After some cautious fumbling, I locate my knife and fork just as my starter is placed down in front of me. A soft French accent – coming from where, I don’t know – informs me of the shape of the dish, then I’m left to the sound of silence. I navigate my fork towards where I believe the plate is located and, after a few clumsy attempts to shovel food on my fork, I lean forward and take a bite before the precariously balanced pile falls down my front – dining in the dark is not for the self conscious. I manage to find my mouth and deposit the forkful. I chew. I pause. And I chew some more. Half the fun of dining in the dark is guessing what you’re eating, which changes the dynamic of the meal: everyone (in between mouthfuls) is talking about nothing else but food – taste, texture, ingredients. There’s an unmistakable softness of boiled potato, and then a slippery sensation that I guess is poached egg. And green beans. Wait. Not green beans – the texture is all wrong. Asparagus?
The dish revealed: Green asparagus, minted new potatoes and poached hen’s egg.
The menu for the May 31 event is being kept under wraps, so Nineteen chef David Attwater has prepared a selection of dishes from the restaurant’s regular menu for me to sample. Unfortunately, the main course he chooses features the same soft potatoes as before, and while I’m happy that he hasn’t chosen to taunt me with a logistically difficult dish such as steak or spaghetti, I have to admit that I’m thoroughly enjoying the exercise of deciphering the different ingredients and textures of each dish. More potato means more of the same (though I’m assured afterwards that the four courses served at Nineteen’s event on May 31 will vary greatly) and it’s not until a fishy puree hits my palate that I regain interest. The texture reminds me of tuna tartare, but the taste is more salmony. I’m disoriented, not to mention a little frustrated. I settle on salmon, but how the salmon is prepared, I can’t say.
The dish revealed: ‘Cole’ of salmon. Prepared using the ‘sous vide’ technique (French for ‘under pressure’), the fillet is vacuum-packed in a plastic bag and cooked for 20 minutes. The technique retains all the fish’s flavour and moisture. It’s served with chicken chorizo and sweetcorn crushed potatoes, topped with sauce gribiche (mayonnaise, finely diced shallots, capers, chopped gherkins, chopped boiled eggs, lemon juice, parsley and tarragon).
The fact that I can actually hear my dessert makes the taste sensation marginally less of a surprise. There is an unmistakable fizz and crackle of popping candy as the plate is placed down in front of me. I’m warned that the dessert is served in a martini glass, so after feeling my way up its stem and holding the glass firmly enough so my stray spoon won’t knock it over, I take my first spoonful. Unsurprisingly, the popping candy is the first to tickle the taste buds, but the mischievous explosions are tempered by what I guess is a yoghurt, punctuated with biscuit crumble and fruit – mango and raspberry, and something else that I can’t put my finger on. Again, my frustrations begin to rise, though I take some solace in the fact that I’m enjoying the dessert immensely. Its varied textures – creamy yoghurt, the crunch of crumble, soft fruit and the playful sting of the popping candy – is matched by equally contrasting tastes: tart raspberry, sweet biscuit, and fresh yoghurt.
The dish revealed: Frozen yoghurt featuring yoghurt ice cream, Philadelphia cream cheese, coconut crisp, mango, togaroshi pepper, lime juice, raspberry and white chocolate snow.
Initially cynical, I was amazed just how much the absence of sight accentuated the taste and texture of the food I was eating. However, the whole process is rather unnerving and disorientating, and I’d hate to think what I looked like hunched over my plate, missing my mouth with my fork and scraping around my plate in search of morsels of food. It’s a great novelty experience, but not something I’d choose to do regularly.
Dining in the Dark takes place on May 31 at 7.30pm. A four-course meal and grape-based beverage pairings costs Dhs495. Nineteen, The Address Montgomerie Dubai, Emirates Hills (04 390 5600).