Sunday, August 9, 2009

O Noir

I have been pretty absent the past few weeks. Things have been extraordinarily busy this past month. We took a trip out West, to visit family and have been actively searching for a house and dealing with a difficult landlord.

At the same time, we're still trying to take in the good things summer has to offer. I have several posts coming up.

Let me tell you about a recent dining experience, while it's fresh in my memory....


This past week, I went to a restaurant called, O Noir, which is a homonymn of "au noir", French for "in the dark" or, more specifically, "in the black".

The idea is to eliminate one of your senses (sight) in order to heighten the remaining ones.

It's exactly what it sounds like. You eat in the dark. Complete darkness -- like the kind of darkness you would experience in an underground tunnel when you turn off the last headlamp. Check out the video about it here:

When I found out about an opportunity to go to this restaurant, I had many questions about the logistics of going to and eating in a restaurant where everything is completely dark.

Before walking into the place, I understood the concept. But in my head, I equated it to eating in a dark room (e.g., like eating in the dark on Earth Day). When I walked into the restaurant and saw the anti-chamber or reception room/bar area, which was VERY dimly lit, I knew the eating area would be darker than I had really internalized.

I was with a group. We were instructed to order our food and remember our waiter's name. Our waiter came out and was told that he has a group of 8, who speak English (we were in Montreal). We lined up, put our left hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us (the waiter led the way). I should mention that the waiters are all blind. I really can't imagine a seeing person competently doing that job.

The waiter led us into the main eating area. As we walked past a black velvet curtain that drowned out any of the light in the reception area, I could hear the girl who was 2 people behind me (in our marching group of 8) gasp with panic. I thought she is going to be too anxious to stay in the room.

We were led to our table and told to put out our right hand to feel our chairs. For a moment, it felt like the anticipation before a theatrical performance when the lights go out and you wait for the show to start with a bang. Except the show was the darkness. I, myself, started feeling a bit anxious too.

Thankfully my wine came quickly and I downed half the glass to take the edge off. Since you order before coming in, the food is brought out relatively quickly.

I ordered a portobello mushroom appetizer that came with with shaved parmesean on a bed of lettuce. Obviously, there are no pictures of the food. We weren't allowed to even keep watches on that glowed in the dark.

Attempting to eat in pitch black was...interesting. I kept bringing my fork to my mouth to discover that I had not successfully skewered anything with it. I finally gave up that venture, took my cloth napkin, tucked it into my shirt and ate with my hands. Yes -- completely barbaric. But, it worked. The problem with eating the food when you can't see it (aside from the lack of visual stimuli), is that 1. it's harder to tell how large a piece you are attempting to put in your mouth without touching it and 2. it's impossible to get a little bit of each component of the dish onto your fork at one time. Eating with my hands solved both of these problems.

One of my main questions about the restauant, prior to coming, was how people would go to the bathroom, if needed. What we had to do was ask our waiter to take us to the bathroom, using the same chain link technique we used to get to our table. The bathroom is dimly lit (like the reception area). Once you're done in there, you stand outside of the bathroom and continually say your waiter's name. Or, he will say his name and you can acknowledge that you're there.

A slight collision happened when another waiter brought some of his group to the bathroom while I was waiting outside of it. As they were about to walk into me, I yelped "there's someone here". The waiter stopped and said, "Someone is there? How many of you?" I explained that there were two of us on the left side of the waiting area. They walked around us and our waiter came and walked us back to our table. I had to laugh when I realized I was grasping on to my waiter's shoulder pretty tightly -- he asked me twice to not squeeze his shoulder so tightly. Oops...

The one thing I was most surprised about the experience was how seeing people act when they can't see. One main thing you'll notice is how loud the room becomes. It's a fairly large space (I gathered this when someone cheated and opened their cell phone for light). It was a large square room with wide aisles. Without being able to see people at your table, people started speaking very loudly (almost yelling). It seems that when you can't see the people you are talking to, you have no frame of reference for how loudly you need to speak in order for them to hear you. You also don't have the benefit of reading people's lips to figure out the words that are not spoken clearly.

Adding to the noise, the waiters walk around saying something that sounded like "au ciel" every step or two to notify other waiters of their location.

A separate thing that happens when you're in the dark is that you end up saying things that likely would never say when you can see the people around you. There's something about not having that immediate visual feedback that allows you to go out on a limb with some of what you say. I guess a similar effect can be found online too.

For the main course, I ordered steak. It wasn't bad, but it was smothered in gravy. I don't tend to put gravy on my food. I also feel that a good steak shouldn't require anything more than some mild seasoning. It also made for a messy meal to eat with you hands (I tried to use my knife and fork but kept choking on the steak not knowing how big the piece was).

Here's a video of the experience that I found online. There is an intro for the video that is unrelated. I would also note that the videotaping within the restaurant seems to show shadows. That level of visibility was not my experience. For me, if was pitch black.

Overally, an interesting experience. Glad I went -- just to try it. But, I didn't find the food to be great and didn't feel that my taste or smell were heightened -- particularly since my hearing was so affected by the loud noise level. All in all, I think I just like to see my food. I'd recommend giving it a try -- because it's a different experience.

O.Noir on Urbanspoon StumbleUpon


Meghan O'Connor said...

actually, your waiters were probably saying "Ici". "au ciel" would mean something like "in the sky" or in the heavens, where Ici means "I'm here". (like in a roll call)

PG said...

Meg - They definitely weren't saying "ici".

Amelie said...

That's crazy! Sounds like a cool experience though I imagine I'd share your opinion - I like to see my food, that's half the fun!

Bunny said...

I think I would be freaked out if I had to go into a totally dark room and eat. I don't think I could relax enough to enjoy it, did anybody have a real hard time staying in the dark??

Amy said...

I'm very intrigued by this concept. I've never heard of anything like it.

But part of the fun of eating out (for me) is seeing the food and the people. Otherwise, I'm afraid I might feel like I'm in solitary confinement.

Steph said...

That sounds like a fun experience. I think eating in the dark would take some of the fun of eating away for me. It would definitely make me eat less, which is probably a good thing!

Valerie Harrison (bellini) said...

It is like staying at the ice hotel in Quebec of those things a person needs to try at least once in their life time. It is cool that they hire wait staff who would not normally have this type of job.

kat said...

I've heard about this & my worry would be that the novelty would be more important than the quality of the food, sounds like that was a little bit of the case. I wonder if people talk louder because they can't see the other person nod or other visual clues of hearing them?

grace said...

that's so awesome. i'm not sure how i'd handle it, as i'm pretty picky and i like to know exactly what i'm putting into my mouth, but i can see how it would be a completely unique experience. the bathroom hunt doesn't sound swell though... :)

Lori Lynn said...

That was a most interesting post! I had thought I wanted to try this, but the more I read, here and elsewhere, I am not too impressed. Your description is very helpful.

Adam said...

I may be going out on a limb here, but I love being able to see things. Crazy, right :) I'm surprised how a place like that is successful, especially because presentation is so important. I do understand the angle they are coming from though. Pretty interesting and different :)

Hopie said...

There's a place like that in Paris. You can go for a meal, but it's also a bar and you can go just for a drink if you're not ready for eating yet. I haven't been yet, but apparently the waiters tell you what's on the menu and then you order. OR you can choose to let the waiter decide and have a surprise meal. Apparently, most people can't tell what they're eating when they can't see it. That freaks me out.

Bordeaux said...

I've heard of this kind of eatery and it although I like the idea behind it (experiencing your food by using other senses) I doubt whether I'd ever try it. I suppose it has something to do with my slight case of claustrophobia and that I'd have to stand outside the restrooms calling out to my waiter :). But curious-sounding indeed.