Dinner in the Dark

Listening to toast, poking panna cotta and otherwise eating with my eyes closed and mind open.

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Out of the darkness comes a voice. “Reach into the basket in front of you and remove one item. DON’T eat it. OK, on the count of one, two, three and bite!”

Thirty silence-shattering mouthfuls orient me to the size of the dining room and the proximity of the other tables. The garlic-rubbed toast is so familiar I see its burnished, roughhewn edges in my mind’s eye. My friend and I grope for each other’s hands before clinking glasses and savoring the red? White? (Rosé.)

The room fills with a slightly sulfuric, distinctly soup-esque aroma. As we navigate the seemingly endless contents of small cups with our spoons, texture takes center stage: a creamy puree, a soft crouton, something fibrous and vegetal. Improbably, a woman nearby murmurs “I feel this is a beet.” “Squash,” announces a male voice in the distance. My companion, a painter, is sure about the color of the mellow soup, with its tart, briny accents: definitely autumnal orange.

Such dinners, prepared at Camaje Bistro by chef Abigail Hitchcock, are conceived and directed by an artist named Dana Salisbury and take place in the private darkness of a very good blindfold. Her Web site describes the meals as “participatory art events revolving around sensory awareness, fine performances, food and eating.”

Called Dark Dining Projects, Salisbury’s concept is the New York incarnation of an international movement. In 1999, a Zurich restaurant called Blindekuh (Blind Cow) was the first to gain recognition for its completely dark dining room. Eateries with similar concepts have followed in Basel, Paris, London, Beijing, Berlin, Sydney and L.A. Some equip waiters with infrared goggles; a few, including Blindekuh, employ blind wait staff. All are rooted in the belief that removing visual stimuli enhances the remaining senses.

Salisbury, who has experienced several of those projects, feels she offers something more complete. While her background is in inedible arts (dance, video and visual art), staging dark dining events is her primary creation these days; she holds events at restaurants around the country, including installation-type dark dinners in which, for example, blindfolded guests might be led to a branch-covered table and encouraged to forage for their food. Salisbury explains, “I wanted to include other experiences beyond just eating a meal blindfolded.

It’s true, the dinner at Camaje isn’t just the only meal I’ve eaten without seeing it, it’s also the only one that included massage and blowing on my scalp. And while I’m accustomed to holding conversations while tuning out the obligatory iPod soundtrack, I listened with rapt fascination to live Brazilian singing, a blues version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” a Kiss medley, and what just might be the aural equivalent of that mysterious soup: Happy Birthday played on a saw.

Salisbury says that the seed of these evenings was planted when she read an Oliver Sacks article about a blind man who, although his vision had been restored, couldn’t translate the physical world into visual terms. As an experiment, she ate an orange with her eyes closed. “I was swept with pleasure,” she recalls. “The world seemed open and more intimate at the same time. I wanted to share this intensely pleasurable expanded ‘vision’ with others and decided to create Dark Dining. The art would be the experience itself.”

So three years ago Salisbury approached chef Hitchcock, who was open—”I like to do different things”—and immediately agreed to host the events. Her cooking is like anything you’d want to encounter in the dark: familiar, appealing, with a sense of expansive possibility.

The night I attended, the (beet? squash?) soup was followed by Arctic Char (widely held to be salmon), an unmistakably vivid lemon-basil palate cleanser (surprisingly easy to identify), and roast pork (judged by some to be beef) with chard and Jerusalem artichokes (which I took for potatoes). The dessert was a textural delight of subtle Earl Grey panna cotta with chocolate sauce and pear puree.

Hitchcock says she doesn’t radically alter her cooking for these evenings, and the dishes she sends out are all visually presentable, if not garnished quite as carefully. “When you see a dish first you have that ‘ooh, ahh’ factor,” she points out, “and then flavor follows.” Without the visual, aroma and texture become her focus.

As for the guessing game (the menu isn’t revealed until after the meal), Hitchcock says, “I don’t design the menu to trick people. You’re already putting yourself in a vulnerable spot, and I don’t want the food to make people uncomfortable. But,” she admits, “I like to serve some dishes that aren’t obvious”—like that soup. At most tables the menu becomes the topic of conversation, usually to the exclusion of anything else.

Though the dining room is lit and servers can see, these dinners create completely nonvisual memories—diners are led into and out of the restaurant blindfolded. Hitchcock and Salisbury say that most evenings follow the same pattern: everyone is uncomfortable and cautious at first, but “by the end of the night, they’re more open than if they were watching each other. Social barriers come down and people become flexible and generous,” Salisbury says. “They perk up blindfolded and they’re lovely.”

“I love that people are fine with going to their hands,” Hitchcock says, describing how guests poke around the plate to see how much food is left. (I jabbed my quivering panna cotta right through with a pointed finger.) And naturally there’s some fumbling, like when someone cuts what turns out to be a tiny sliver of meat, then opens Extra-sensory perception: participants suspend their sight in search of heightened taste.as wide as possible, only to chomp down on the near-empty fork.

Both women stress that they’re not offering the chance to “experience blindness.” Last year, Salisbury staged a dark dining event at Alcala, a Spanish restaurant on East 46th Street, for participants in a conference at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called Art Beyond Sight. The coordinators at the Met described the dinner as a way to let the other senses came to the fore and to open people up—to experience and to each other.

As we removed our blindfolds, my fellow diners and I shared a wide-eyed and united feeling for a moment on the sidewalk. One man said he enjoyed his food more, and in different ways, than usual, but that the overall dinner experience was “diminished.” Another joked “I shouldn’t spend money on food since I obviously don’t have taste buds.” Most said the night felt intimate and liberating, and I would agree. My companion and I had talked as though we were alone, though there were people all around. When we thought the table next to us had been vacated we reached over to find out for ourselves. (It had been.)

And without any preconceptions, I savored each bite of food as if I’d never eaten before.

On the subway, hours later, I open the menu card we were given. The mysterious soup? Radish, with Balsamic Reduction and Olive-Anchovy Croutons.

Camaje Bistro and Lounge is at 85 MacDougal Street. Dinners in the dark with wine are $100 on weekdays, $120 on weekends. Call the restaurant at 212.673.8184 or check out camaje.com or darkdiningprojects.com for more info.

Photo credit: Melissa Horn

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Zoe Singer is a freelance food writer, co-author of The Flexitarian Table and a blogger for fitpregnancy.com. She grew up in Park Slope, lives in Sunset Park and regularly eats her way down Fifth Avenue to Bay Ridge.