Kept in the dark. A night of eating without seeing.
The little red lights hovered and bobbed in a line signalling that something was about to happen. Pupils straining in the velvet blackness, the only thing that gave a visual clue that I had dinner companions was a faint rectangular glow from two of the men’s watches and the tiny red dots from the waiters’ night-vision goggles. My sense of sight was useless. I developed a system of placing my wine glass touching the top of my dish so I wouldn’t knock it over (sensibly the glass was made of plastic).
This was the launch of Noire at Spectrum on One; a dining in the dark experience which will be open for four nights a week at The Fairmont, Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai. After some dignitaries, led by Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, cut a ceremonial ribbon – in reception with light – and we were led, table by table, left hand on the person in front’s shoulder, into the restaurant. Immediately plunged into inky blackness, we wound right and left, light-blocking curtains brushing our cheeks. A sense of vulnerability kicked in immediately, I couldn’t shake off the feeling of claustrophobia or that I would suddenly meet stairs. I could hear each person in our group being guided to their place at the table one by one. At last, KP was led off and I was left totally alone. By the time my guide came back for me I was shaking and as I was led to the table my hand caught a small glass and tipped it over. I felt flustered, very disoriented, but excited with anticipation of a very different eating experience.
Feeling around my place setting, my fingers caught another small plastic glass which also went over. I felt the wetness on the table and panic that I couldn’t catch the eye of a waiter in the normal way. Other people on the table felt miles away, but when I introduced myself to the couple at my end we stretched our hands across the table we were actually quite near. Conversation was more difficult without visual clues. You’d start talking at the same time as someone else or they wouldn’t realise you were talking to them. I kept moving my head to try to tune in. With my friends I was confident to talk, but announcing things into thin air to strangers without even knowing if they were listening made every sentence I uttered ring in my ears foolishly.
The waitress refilled my cocktail, which was fruity and KP declared non-alcoholic (it wasn’t). Bread appeared on our side plates, then a dish was placed in front of each of us with instructions on where to find our cutlery (a fork and spoon). Bite sized chunks in a sauce were sweet like chicken in taste but not texture. With a crisp skin and melting middle, was it a mild fish? There was a butternuttiness to the sauce. All of us but KP were confused. He very positively identified it as offal and refused to eat more. We all pooh-poohed that suggestion.
Plates were cleared and the wait for the main course seemed like a long time although it was probably just average. Gales of raucous laughter rang out from some tables, it seemed very loud, it was easier to stay silent some of the time as interacting took an effort. A savoury aroma alerted us to the imminent arrival of the next course. Pin pricks of red lights from the waiters’ night-vision goggles made an appearance en masse and the main course was served, again with a fork and spoon to eat with.
Soft melting meat, but beef or lamb, we couldn’t decide. Lentils, cabbage and something crispy like fried onions. “It’s fish” declared KP, “Noooo” we chorused, “With tomatoes” he continued, “No way” was our emphatic reply. “You try it Sal” so I reached sideways into the darkness with my spoon and scooped up a little sauce with lentils. “Definitely the same as ours” I announced.
“We could do anything here in the dark” I whispered to KP, “except the staff are all wearing night-vision goggles” he replied. I forgot I was being watched. It was disconcerting – like when I sat opposite a row of ladies, all fully covered, in Saudi, knowing their eyes were upon me. Another ‘shot’ was placed before us – I was sure there was Amaretto in there somewhere.
We were orientated to our dessert “two Japanese spoons on either side and something in the middle”. There was no cutlery. Right hand spoon was unmistakable as popping candy, not a favourite of mine so I didn’t linger. Left hand spoon was jelly with a soft centre so it was an explosion of wobbly mango in your mouth. The middle was easily identified as raspberry meringue filled with ice cream – I ate this with my fingers. We’d predicted that the lights would suddenly flick on, but no, we were led away for coffee, leaving an air of mystery about our surroundings and companions.
I was ready to be liberated from my sightlessness, something that the Sightsavers charity does in reality by working to eliminate preventable blindness, for example with cataract operations. Part of the 325 AED charge per head for the experience is donated to this very worthwhile cause.
Our menu was revealed. The first course had been sweetbreads, mixed with cubes of apricot panna cotta. KP was jubilant.
Beef short ribs cooked for two days with shredded Brussel sprouts and lentils had been served to us. Bizarrely, KP had received fish on a bed of roasted tomatoes with lentils. He was almost cartwheeling with pride at his well-tuned taste bud skills.
Dessert was no surprise, although I hadn’t dug underneath the popping candy for the strawberry spaghetti. What I found interesting was how small the meringue appeared – I had struggled to eat it all. The menus are rotated so what you are given to eat will always be a surprise.
With sighs of relief, a group of us retired to the bar for a much-needed chill out.
This was the most prolonged ‘blind’ dining experience for me – I had dined without sight by wearing a blindfold in the past due to my connection with Dubai-based non-profit organisation Foresight. We’d held ‘Dine for Sight’ in restaurants across the city once a year and encouraged people to try eating without the use of vision. I knew how exhausting it is to rely on your other senses, the amount of concentration needed and how small things are difficult. We’d even tried to set up our own Dine in the Dark with Chef Stephane from Tang based on ‘Blindekuh‘. This is a restaurant giving meaningful employment to the waiting staff who are visually impaired and also gives them an advantage over sighted diners. Night vision goggles were only allowed for military use in those days. Because of my experience with people who are losing or who have lost their sight, I consider, usually on almost a daily basis, of what it is like for your vision to fail. Spending such a long period of time without the use of this most precious of senses was extremely sobering.
I would certainly recommend dining at Noire, it would be a great place to take visitors and maybe even a special place for a first date. Could anything be improved? Less salt – I was more aware of the level of seasoning than usual. Better wine – focussing solely on taste revealed all the faults, a truly blind wine tasting would be brilliant though (I hear one is in the pipeline). I would swap the plastic glasses for heavy based tumblers or the Riedel stem-less type – again the texture of plastic when you are very focussed on touch is not the nicest experience. It was noisy too – but this was probably due to the launch party (extrovert media people!).
Bravo to The Fairmont for trying something really different in Dubai and to the excellent ‘sensory guides’.
Noire at Spectrum on One at The Fairmont, Dubai (Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday evening from 7:30pm – 10pm). AED 325 per head for this 1 ½ hour dinner including a three course menu with paired beverages. AED 27 of the proceeds from each dinner will be donated to Sightsavers. Tel: +971 4 311 8316
Have you ever dined without sight? What would be your biggest concern?
Disclosure: I was a guest of The Fairmont for the launch event of the restaurant.
QUICK REMINDER: Possession. What does this mean to you relating to wine? It’s the theme for the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge – Deadline for submission: Monday, September 23rd 2013. Just the thing to get your creative wine writing juices flowing – read more about it here. Use the #MWWC3 hashtag on Twitter and Facebook.