The first time I heard about the concept of "Dark Dining" was when I was doing research for the Test Kitchen. It only took me a few minutes of understanding what it was for me to put it on my bucket list.
I had been reading about the founder of the "dining in the dark" movement in the states, Ben Uphues, a German man who had brought this concept over from Germany, and opened a restaurant in Los Angeles called Opaque. Ben has been so successful that he now has restaurants in San Diego and San Francisco, as well. Seems "dark dining" has legs. The tagline Ben Uphues uses to promote Opaque is "close your eyes, and see." Indeed.
The great news is that you can have a "dining in the dark" experience right here in Kansas City. Alphapointe Association for the Blind and United Healthcare have teamed up and consulted with Ben Uphues, to create an authentic "dining in the dark" experience as an annual fundraiser for the blind. For the third year in a row, they will be hosting this "dark dining" experience at the Westin Crown Center, on November 4 with a reception starting at 5:30. Tickets to this one of a kind event are $250 per person, and worth every single penny for the experience I am about to describe to you.
How do I know so much about "dark dining" if it is still on my bucket list? Well, I was invited to attend a mini-dark dining experience at the Westin this week as part of the press kick-off. It wasn't close to the level that guests will be experiencing it, but it gave me enough insight for me to know that this was a blog-worthy event.
It is, simply put, a unique dining experience that takes place in utter and complete darkness. Imagine the possibilities . . .the challenges . . .the excitement of tasting food you cannot see.
Since your sense of sight is hampered, all of your other senses are on high alert.
It all starts when you are led into the dining room, single-file, one behind the other, with your hands on each others shoulders, through a pitch black maze that sends your senses into a confusing mash of right turns, left turns and double-backs until you finally reach the dead dark dining room, where all of the exit signs and smoke detectors are covered, all you can do is by seated by your attendant.
Now, imagine hearing someone, say, pouring wine into the wine class in front of you. Your mouth waters in anticipation of whether it might be a crisp, citrusy white or a bold and smoky red.
Then, imagine your sense of smell hightened, as something is placed before you to eat. As the aroma's penetrate your nose, it might give you a clue as to whether something you are about to eat is spicy, sweet or herbaceous, or it might not.
Imagine touching the food, before you begin trying to cut it with cutlery that thankfully can be found in their usual "Miss Manners" places on the table. Does it feel leafy, hard, soft, squishy, cold or hot? How about your plate? Is it too hot to touch? Of course, cutting your food into bite-sized pieces may become so challenging that you begin to eat with your fingers. Go ahead. Who cares? No one can see you break with traditional table manners. The other alternative is that you begin pushing food off your plate in an attempt to get some on your fork and actually to your mouth. Sometimes you have something on your fork and sometimes you don't.
Next, you begin eating, placing something in your mouth that you cannot see. Your palate prepares itself, as your mind begins to play tricks with you. The texture of the item in your mouth and it's immediate flavors may give you a clue, but honestly you are not sure whether you are eating a potato or a turnip.
It is all part of the shared dining experience that you are having with everyone else in room. Although, the truth is, that each of you is having your own unique experience and challenges eating this dinner. You look for support by talking to others at the table. You are trying to determine if you have actually picked up your fork or wondering if you are now eating with your neighbors fork. You begin asking the table if anyone else tasted lemon in the sauce that was on the fish . . . or was it fennel. A discussion ensues on guessing what might actually be in this dish. It brings you all closer together, because sitting in utter darkness can feel a bit lonely, without confirmation there are others with you at the table.
Perhaps, you boldly lean over to steal a kiss from the person, who you assume is your lover, sitting next to you. (I suggest calling his/her name softly to make sure it is really them before you lay one on them.) Kissing someone in the dark, without being able to see them . . .well, for me, xxxxxxx. Go for it. Besides, this is one time you PDA-phobes can take a walk on the wild side, safely. There is an undeniably sexy aspect to this kind of dining, that I would be foolish not to call out and address here. (As a public service announcement, to assist the folks from Alphapointe, I would ask you to keep it clean and to a minimum. It is a charity dinner, people. Sheesh.)
Now, what if I told you that all of your servers in the restaurant were legally blind? Their whole world is darkness, so who better to work in a "dark" restaurant? The courses are ropes off, and chairs around the table are marked with pieces of tape that let them know where to stop. Fuzzy car mats are laid on the floor around the table to clue them into where to stand to serve and clear. Waiting in the wings are managers who see quite well, and are wearing night-vision goggles to keep track of what is going on in their dining room, and to escort you out to the bathroom or to leave the dinner in the event that you need to leave for any reason. A note, the dinner is only 2 hours long, I would suggest a potty break before the meal, not during, as it takes time for your eyes to readjust to the dark. You don't want to miss a moment.
I can't share any more details about the food at this dinner, other than to tell you there are 3 courses and plenty of wine served during the meal. I should note there is also a vegetarian option for dinner, should you desire that. Chef Todd Coaytor, Executive Chef for the Westin Crown Center, has prepared a confusing, but absolutely delicious dinner for you to enjoy on Nov. 4, 2010.
Just know, you will leave knowing what it feels like for the blind to eat a meal in a restaurant. You will leave with a renewed appreciate for your sight, and you will be glad you made your donation to help fund the creation of tools that assist the blind in doing things everyday that we take for granted.
For more information, or to reserve your seat for "Dining in the Dark", please contact Jennifer Kraenzle at 816-237-2099. Due to the nature of the evening, seating is very limited so contact Jennifer today to reserve your table.
Here's a video of Ben Uphues and his "dark dining" restaurant in LA, Opaque. Enjoy.