by Trina Hendry

Dining the in the dark is a true sensory experience.

Living in a vibrant city like Toronto means the opportunity to experience total and complete darkness is a rarity, if not an impossibility. So, when I was invited by a group of colleagues to dine in the dark at O.Noir, curiosity got the best of me.

O.Noir means ‘In the Dark’. Owned by Moe Alameddine, the original O.Noir opened in Montreal to rave reviews in 2006. The Toronto location, which is situated at 620 Church Street (at Charles Street) below an apartment building, opened last June. I’m not sure what was there prior but it is obvious that very little has changed in the way of décor. It is reminiscent of an old English pub, with dark leather seating and brass rails lining the lounge area. I immediately question why the space hasn’t been updated and then realize there’s no need, given their guests are about to dine in the dark.

The purpose of this dining experience is two-fold – it is believed that dining in the dark heightens one’s senses and guests get to learn what it feels like to blind.

We enter through a pair of double doors that takes us through maze-like hallways that take us to the well-lit lounge. The hostess greets us and explains how the evening will unfold. Our servers are visually impaired and they will be guiding us through this experience.

We are then asked to make our menu and drink selections before entering the all-black dining room. From the prix fixe menu, we are given two options: a three-course (appetizer, main and dessert) for $39 or a two-course meal (appetizer and main or main and dessert) for $32.

The food is Italian. A range of appetizers consists of an arugula salad, grilled Portobello mushrooms with Parmesan shavings, grilled octopus and grilled calamari. Mains include five-spice Filet Mignon, veal al limone, chicken breast with aubergine and tomatoes, pasta in a light tomato sauce with vegetables and grilled shrimp atop sun-dried tomato risotto. Desserts round out the menu nicely with a couple of chocolate items and a fruit sorbet. Each course also had a ‘surprise’ dish that puts you completely in the trusting hands of the chef. The drink selection is limited, with one red and one white wine by the glass, as well as a selection of cocktails, beer and more wines by the bottle.

I choose two courses – appetizer and main and take a pass on the surprise dishes. I strategically select meals that I think would be the easiest to eat (i.e. those that require the least amount of manipulation by a knife). As it turns out, dining in the dark, regardless of the meal, is no easy task. More on that later.

After ordering, we are told that cell phones must be turned off and any attempt to obtain light is considered cheating.

Our visually-impaired server leads us into the dark room, single file with our right hand on the person’s shoulder in front of us. We literally cannot see a thing. It takes a few minutes to get settled and during that time, a slight feeling of panic overcomes me. But, once my eyes and brain adjust to this completely dark environment, I begin to embrace the experience.

It is at this moment that I realize the chef and restaurateur are at a complete advantage. Because you can’t see what you’re eating, presentation of the food doesn’t matter. It could be a total mess and you wouldn’t be any the wiser. And, because you enter into a room where you literally cannot see your hand in front of your face, you have no idea what the dining room looks like or where you are seated relative to the other guests. You are literally at the mercy of the people who run this place and must be willing to relinquish all control, which, being a Type-A personality, is a challenge for me at the best of times.

Once seated, our servers arrive with our drink order and a basket of warm dinner rolls. Because the servers cannot actually see you or your place setting, it is your job to take the food and drinks from them when they tap your right shoulder. The servers are wonderful – patient, polite and proficient.

As the first course arrives and people begin to dig in, giggles erupt. As one might expect, my fellow diners and I are having great difficulty finding the food on our plates. I am also worried that, because I am a bit of a klutz, the person sitting next to me might become the victim of a spilled glass of wine or worse.

I ordered the Portobello mushrooms with Parmesan shavings and balsamic vinegar. By feeling around my plate with my fork, I am able to determine that the mushrooms were sliced nicely atop a bed or arugula and drizzled with sweet balsamic vinegar. However, actually finding the mushrooms and then successfully picking them up with a fork proves to be a huge challenge. As the evening progresses, I rely more and more on my fingers to find the food.

The second course of grilled shrimp and sun-dried tomato risotto arrives shortly after. I am less impressed with this dish, as the risotto is cold – clearly from sitting under a light for too long – and the shrimp is overcooked. Putting the quality of the food aside, this dish proves to be even more difficult to manoeuvre. Who knew that scooping up a forkful of risotto would be such a challenge in the dark?

As dinner concludes, we are led out to the well-lit lounge area to settle the bill. It takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the stark contrast of light, but soon enough, my sight is back to normal. To my relief, I walk away unscathed, meaning no mess on my clothes and no spills on the guests seated near me.

The meal was mediocre at best and I wouldn’t recommend the restaurant for a fine dining experience. However, my goal was to try something new and unexpected and that’s exactly what happened. Most interesting to me was that because I couldn’t see anything, I instinctively learned to use my other senses to pay closer attention to the everything happening around me – the conversations, the human interactions, the smells and flavours in my food. It was an experience I will never forget.

The restaurant is open 7 nights a week and there are two seatings – 5:45 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.

Trina Hendry is the president of ChowBella Culinary Experience & Concierge, a company that specializes in food tours in and around Toronto.