As Noire at Spectrum on One gets ready to bring the worldwide trend of dining in the dark to Dubai, Penelope Walsh finds out how servers and diners fare in the pitch black.
Presentation can be as dominant a deciding factor in enjoyment and the skill credited to chefs as taste itself. Yet, the concept of dining in total darkness has become a culinary trend that has swept the world for nearly ten years now. Starting in Paris in 2004, the restaurant Dans Le Noir (‘In The Night’) continues to spawn franchises and one-off homages worldwide.
This year has seen Dubai host its own version with dine in the dark events at Nineteen and Anise restaurants and a blind tasting competition in an unlit area at this year’s Taste of Dubai. This week on Friday September 6, Fairmont Dubai is embracing sensory deprivation in the name of gourmet arts with the launch of Noire at Spectrum on One. Held in a pitch-black dining room, guests will be served a three-course menu, which they can’t see, guided and served by waiters wearing night vision goggles. While Dans Le Noir started with blind waiters and in support of a blind charity, Spectrum on One will follow this fitting idea by donating Dhs27 per person to Sightsavers Middle East, a charity that offers aid to people affected by blindness in developing countries.
Visiting the restaurant for a sneak preview of the experience, it began as the waiter guided us slowly and carefully into the darkened room. Even with the waiter’s description of the surroundings, the shock of manoeuvring towards and into our seat in the pitch black proves more disabling than anticipated and the waiter has to guide our hand around the table, to the water glass, knife, fork and plate. With vision taken out of the equation the aim is that the other senses, such as smell and taste are heightened, allowing diners to experience eating with an increased appreciation for these factors. With the challenge of working out the flavours as part of the entertainment, after each dinner, guests will be brought back into the light to discuss the menu they’ve sampled with the chefs responsible for creating it.
‘Part of it is the fun aspect, part of it is to educate people and the fact that the charity is involved is great’ explains executive chef, Lorraine Sinclair., who adds that part of the Noire experience is ‘going out and appreciating a meal for what it is, not what you see in front of you.
‘When people book, we need to know dietary requirements. Now a dietary requirement is not ‘I don’t like fish’, it is ‘I’m allergic to fish’. So the experience will open their minds; try the fish, perhaps the only reason you don’t like fish is because of what you see in front of you.’
As we wait in the dark for the food, I notice how different social interaction feels, when unable to register and respond to the facial expressions of those around you. While I can hear chef Lorraine and my dining partner chat, all I can see is the small dot of red light emitted by the night-vision goggles. What a great ‘blind date’, Lorraine jokes, allowing you to ignore boring dates, or even disappear if it is not going well.
The first item to arrive is a mocktail. Sipping in the dark, we we’re flummoxed by the multitude of ingredients used to make it (nine in total, including cinnamon, cranberry, pineapple, basil, mint and cucumber) and struggle to isolate what each one is. Then the plate arrives and the first signal that it is on the table, is a brief but clear awareness of a rich and meaty aroma.
It is disorientating, however, when I realise I have no idea what sort of presentation I am faced with. But even the darkness makes no difference to the care put in to the presentation. Lorraine says: ‘No chef, no matter what, will put a mess on the plate, because they have that passion in their heart. If I was cooking for a blind person, it would make no difference to the presentation, because that is my respect for my trade.’ The first bites prove to be empty spoonfuls, as I struggle to locate the food. Finding my way to a small piece of something richly buttery, creamy and with a warm, autumnal meatiness to it, I realise it is foie gras. Lingering around it is a soft tone of nuts, and it is not until I get my spoon into the peanut powder that I can appreciate the concentrated depth of flavour. Following on are the vastly different textures
of candied pecans, grape jelly and some croutons.
The darkness poses a challenge not only for diners, but for the serving and kitchen teams as well. While, the waiters are wearing night-vision goggles, as we found out for ourselves, their vision is still significantly impaired by colour blindness and limited depth perception. In fact the team serving at Noire at Spectrum on One were trained and selected through a serious of obstacle courses and tests, conducted using the goggles in the dark. Recipe development also takes on completely new criteria. ‘The first dish the chefs prepared was a full lobster with a lot of sauce underneath. So I turned all the lights off, made it as dark as I could, put a knife and fork in their hands and told them to try eating it. They ended up with sauce all down them,’ Lorraine laughs. The food she explains, has to be cut into smaller pieces, to make it easier to eat. ‘Some people use their hands to guide themselves’. After messy lessons were learned, the chefs now avoid using many sauces. There is also a focus on variations in texture within a dish and as such powders and jellies are a clever way of varying texture, and replacing the wet sauces: ‘It’s the contrast on your palate, the powder dries it, but then the jelly compote gives you the moisture.’ The choice of ingredients is also more challenging, ‘Flavours cannot be overpowering, once you’ve overwhelmed the palate with one flavour, such as chilli, lemongrass or galangal, the whole thing is wasted. So flavours need to be strong, so that individual flavour is distinctive.’
Noire at Spectrum on One launches on Friday September 6. Dhs325 per person (Dhs27 per guest is donated to Sightsavers Middle East). Fri-Mon 7.30pm – 10pm. Fairmont Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 311 8316).
The birth of ‘noir’
• As early as 1511, the concept of dining in a darkly, gothic inspired ambience began with banquets hosted by The Company of the Trowel, with food served inside spiders and scorpions and paintings of torture gracing the walls.
• In post-revolutionary Paris, the world’s first restaurant critic Grimod de la Reynière, became famed for hosting funereal dinners, serving black-coloured food on coffins. In 2009 in London, culinary renegades Bompass and Parr staged an homage event, with the Black Banquet.
• 2004, and the concept of darkness enters dining culture again, this time focussed on sensory perceptions, rather than scarring diners witless. The first Dans Le Noir restaurant is opened in collaboration with the Paul Guinot Foundation for Blind People, and served by blind waiters.
• Innovative chef Heston Blumenthal launches a concept to heighten the senses through sound with the introduction of ‘sounds of the sea’ in 2007, a seafood dish served with an Ipod playing noises from the seaside.
• Branches of Dans Le Noir have since opened in London, Barcelona and New York, expanding throughout Europe and further afield from Korea to Canada. In 2011, Dans Le Noir also launched a spa in the dark experience, and pop-up dining in the dark events continue to arise across the globe.
• Dine in the dark hits Dubai in 2011, when Nineteen restaurant launches its own one-off dinners in pitch blackness, taking place to promote environmental awareness for Earth Day in March and in a return to the concept’s gothic origins, for Halloween.
• In March 2013, the event Taste of Dubai includes its own interpretation with a ‘blind’ tasting experience taking place in darkness.
Learn more about Noire here.