I am going out to dinner tonight. I am excited. I am sure the food will be well-prepared, and it will probably be visually appealing, but I won’t know that.
The newly opened restaurant where Younger Son, the Vocal Eye audio description team (we do live audio description of theatre performances), and I will be dining is called Dark Table, and we will be eating in the dark, as a blind person would. Our guide servers will all be blind or sight-impaired and have been training for a couple of months to learn the layout of the restaurant, which opened in Vancouver just this week.
There are other dark dining restaurants from Toronto to New York to Beijing and the concept came originally from a blind pastor in Zurich, Switzerland named Jorge Spielmann.
He would invite people over for dinner and ask them to wear a blindfold while eating, to understand and share what his eating experience was like. Apparently, his guests really appreciated the experience. They felt that when their sense of sight was removed, their senses of hearing, taste, smell and touch were all more focused on the food, the pleasure of eating it, and conversing with their company.
The first dark restaurant was opened by him in 1999 and was called Blindekuh (German for Blind Cow).
Dark Table is the third in a chain of restaurants operated by Moe Allamedine, who has brought the dark dining concept to both Montreal and Toronto. He is working in conjunction with Open Door, a Vancouver-based non-profit group that helps British Columbians with disabilities find jobs in their communities.
When Younger Son and I arrive at the restaurant, we are greeted outside by hostesses who take out orders for a “surprise” starter, entrée and “surprise” dessert, and also for beverages. We are then greeted by our guide server for the evening, Lazar who asks us to line up, put a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us, and leads us into the dark restaurant – and it is really dark.
I have no perception of anything around me, except a murmured conversation somewhere across the room, and feel a tremendous urge to giggle … which then makes it’s way down the line, and we all break into nervous laughter, but cut it short to concentrate on where Lazar is carefully guiding us.
He takes a great deal of care to get us safely to our table, and as I sit down thankfully, I carefully landmark where I stow my purse (to the side of my right foot, as far under the table as possible) and my sweater – although it is a warm evening, I almost want to put my sweater on as my back feels so exposed. I feel the need to push it into the chair back, which pulls my feet off the ground (I am short). There they swing, in the darkness. Kind of freeing, as nobody can see to tell me I look like an idiot! My goodness, I could be making faces at my dining companions or sticking my fingers in my ears (best not to do that, as I think I will need them to be clean, later).
As the drinks arrive and are put into our hands, I become aware of the dimensions of the glass (it is a chunky stemmed goblet), and my fingers play over its surface to find the edges and guide it down to the table without spilling.
Younger Son’s beverage arrived in the bottle. Why I wonder, did I get a glass? He gets it. The San Pellegrino I ordered usually comes in a can, which is problematic for several reasons: feeling for the opening could cause a cut finger, it is harder to landmark a can opening on one side, and aesthetically a can tastes tinny, whereas a glass bottle is inert and is easy to keep under control.
The starter arrives, and although we all surmise it is a salad, the exploration of what turns out to be curly kale and mixed greens, big flakes of parmesan, chunks of sautéed portobello mushroom and a few other tasty bits, takes us through the frustrations of trying to get a mouthful onto a fork only to find, when you get it to your mouth, that you have not managed to retain anything, and are biting down on metal tines.
It is not long before I resort to pushing morsels on the fork, and enjoying this feeling immensely. My fingers are curious and feel the edges of the kale, appreciating its laciness, and as I successfully get a forkful up to my face, gently stroke the edge of the greens over my lips. I inhale the aroma. Definitely green, with a hint of citrus. Then, the texture of the mushroom, which I would describe as meaty and succulent. The thick ribbons of parmesan melt onto my tongue and I hear “Mmm”s and “Hmm?”s and “Oh yes!” and we are all excitedly describing for each other the tastes and textures.
There is a great sense of success as we manage to determine and decode ingredients, and I am grateful for the quiet attentions of our server, but am also becoming acutely aware of what a great deal of trust I place in my sight, and how dependent I am upon visual cues to tell me what I am tasting!
The entrée proves easier for me to eat, as I have ordered prawns (easy to spear) with risotto (I develop an effective scooping technique).
And I am in awe, and have so much respect for Lazar’s ability to know when we need help, or to anticipate a dropped fork and appear with a replacement.
And when surprise dessert arrives with a spoon, I am grateful! A pass over the plate with my hand reveals a cold patch – is it ice cream? A mouthful certainly tastes something cold and creamy, but it takes a moment to reveal itself – it’s flavour very mild – as a vanilla.
And then, a poke with my spoon sinks into something beside it, which is a little bit springy. I scoop up some of what I assume, correctly, is cake and bring it up to my mouth. Once again, very mild, but there it is – a taste I know well.
I smile into the darkness as we all say, “Chocolate”.
And this gives me the idea for next week’s blog: a blindfold taste-testing of chocolate pastilles of differing cacao percentages.
For this taste test, I will be using a very discerning, highly opinionated group: the eight actresses with whom I am currently in rehearsal for My Mother’s Story, an all-woman show. Stay tuned for the results.