What You Taste When Your Eyes Can’t See: Dining in the Dark in the UAE

It is said that 80% of what we experience occurs through the visual channel and I believe that an overwhelming majority of us would maintain that the one sense we do not want to be deprived of, is our sight. Eating is understood to be a multi-sensory experience, with our eyes leading the way. According to research scientists and psychologists, our eyes see the food first, then tells our brain what it will taste like, based on previous experiences and prior learned responses. So, what happens when our eyes are purposely taken out of the equation? Are our other senses acutely heightened? This is what Noire Restaurant (housed on the 9th floor of the Fairmont Dubai) and other “dark” restaurants around the globe have intimated–that its clients would experience an intensified, gastronomical journey, obliging them to rely on other methods of perceiving the world.

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The concept of dining in a restaurant or room cloaked in darkness has its origins in Zurich, Switzerland; a blind clergyman by the name of Jorge Spielmann wanted his friends to gain an unbiased impression of what it is like to dine without sight, so he hosted a dinner with his guests blindfolded. His friends reported that their sense of taste and smell were sharpened as a result of being visually deprived. It was this experience that gave Spielmann the brilliant idea to open the world’s first dark restaurant called Blendekuh (which means “blind man’s bluff” in German) in 1999. By 2008, there were several restaurateurs in North America and Europe who appropriated the idea and by 2014 there were dozens of restaurants all over the world offering “dining in the dark” experiences. Noire in Dubai followed suit in 2013, offering UAE residents, thrill-seeking tourists, foodie sophisticates, and cause-conscious individuals, contemporary inventive fare in pitch-black surroundings. Before the close of 2015, I rounded up four of my closest friends in the UAE to share in this Middle Eastern iteration of a “dark” dining affair.

Upon arrival to Noire, we were ushered to the open terrace, to indulge in a pre-celebratory toast. We sipped on a sparkling non-alcoholic concoction of summer’s mixed berries, while exchanging pleasantries. For those looking to “up the ante”, shisha and alcohol are available on the a la carte menu, but are not included in the prix- fixe dining experience.

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Come dinnertime (which is set at 7:30 pm, 5 days a week, M-F), you will be requested to form a line with your dining companions as if you’re getting ready to do the “I’m feeling hot, hot, hot” cha cha line dance. With hands on your mate’s shoulders, you are led into the room around a curtained partition, by a waiter equipped with night vision goggles, which looked like something akin to infrared seeking glasses used in sci-fi thrillers.

Although I am not an individual who has a severe phobia of the dark or needs the security of a nightlight when retiring for bed, the stark darkness was initially disconcerting. The inky blackness of the room was eerily reminiscent of “blackouts” our neighborhood experienced as a result of being pummeled by severe thunderstorms when I was a kid. You feel as if you want to huddle in a corner or under the covers, until lights are restored.

Upon arrival to our designated table, we were repeatedly urged not to touch anything on the table until we were debriefed by the maître d’. We were then “talked through” our table settings, where upon prompting, we reached ahead to the right and left to locate the cutlery and dining ware. To prevent diners from inflicting unnecessary harm on themselves and perhaps to avoid looking like toddlers with food smeared on our faces and clothes, we were not provided with knives.

The darkness weighed heavily on us; most of us contemplating whether we could endure two hours in a tenebrous setting. Gradually, the mood lightened; I recall straining my eyes to cut through the darkness. I finally resigned to closing my eyes and forcing my other senses to do the work. I became acutely aware of my surroundings. The room became lively with spirited banter, voices ebbed and flowed, never elevating to a fever pitch. My friends and I decided that this would provide an opportune time to engage in “Confessions in the Dark”- a modified version of “truth or dare”. We all agreed that, inherently, not being able to read someone’s face and interpret body language allowed for freer expression of self.

Wafts of fresh seafood permeated the room. Immediately, I was taken to a roadside seafood shack off the coast of the Caribbean, with the breeze licking my shoulders and back. The first course was samplings of what tasted to be baked or grilled calamari properly seasoned with hints of lemon and parsley and delicately paired with airy crispy wafers. We were told that white wine would accompany the dish.

The second course/main course was my personal favorite, which upon sampling—tasted like smoked Spanish chorizo and chicken in a moderately rich risotto. In between our “truth and truth” revelations, I recall wishing that there was another helping.

The evening closed with dessert- what my friends and I purported to be thinly shaved glacier candy paired with vanilla gelato. The crispness of the sweet brittle justly juxtaposed the softness of the ice cream. At the closing of the meal, we all anticipated that production lighting would flood the room and we would be able to open our eyes. Instead, we were shepherded out of the room in the manner in which we entered (one by one with our hands affixed to the shoulders of the waiter), to perhaps lessen the brutal shock of going from extreme darkness to light.

Upon exiting and once our eyes readjusted to a softly-lit vestibule, we were asked to gather around a table to view the prepared courses. We were gobsmacked by what we saw.

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We were convinced that we drank glasses of a creamy full-bodied white wine, when in fact we were served generous pourings of red wine. What tasted like vanilla gelato to most, was in fact, green tea ice cream.

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The chicken and sausage plated between risotto was the one dish most had accurately described.

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The prepared dishes demonstrated that our notion of smell and taste are challenged when the sense of sight is taken out of the equation. Likewise, it appears as if our perception of what food should taste like is predisposed to learned responses. An eye-opening experience, we all concurred.

For 325 dirhams ($89), with 27 dirhams ($7) donated to Sight Savers, a charitable organization that helps visually impaired people in developing countries, this is a dining experience that is worth a special visit**. So come with a date or come with some of your good mates, as this culinary adventure transcends the typical “dinner out” experiences in the UAE. Furthermore, it is an admirable way to foster awareness of what it is like to navigate through the world as an unsighted person.

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**(Please note, that due to limited space, reservations are required. You are advised to list food allergies on the reservation form. Dress code is smart casual).

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