Throwback Thursdays: Dining in the dark at Montreal’s ONoir

We’re back with another #throwbackthursday post bringing us back to the days of easy cross-border travel. Today, I recount an exciting culinary experience at Montreal’s ONoir, which forces you to experience the joy of a great meal – but without using one’s sense of sight. It was a meaningful experience that reminded me that our experience of food is more than the sum of each sense and what they evoke.

Just how much do we rely upon our sense of sight to experience food? What happens when you’re down one of your five primary senses for a meal? A surprising learning experience awaits at Montreal’s ONoir, where the entire meal is experienced in complete darkness. Dining in the dark will change the way you see food – pun intended.

My prior acquaintance with the idea of restaurant dining in darkness came from pop culture – a very sentimental 2013 movie called About Time, starring Rachel McAdams and Domhnall Gleeson. Dining in the dark sets the stage for the film’s meet cute: The main characters (originally) meet and have great conversation while dining communally at a restaurant in London in total darkness, seeing one another in person only on the street after departing the restaurant.

ONoir, its Canadian real-world equivalent, has locations in Montreal and Toronto. Its mission is two-fold: to offer employment opportunities for the blind (severely visually impaired) and to help patrons experience food without relying on their sense of sight. I had the great privilege of trying ONoir during a weekend trip to Montreal to celebrate a good friend’s birthday.  Highly recommended by friends and foodies alike, ONoir piqued the curiosity of our group of five.  Not only would we be experiencing dining in the dark, but our group mostly did not know one another until that weekend, when we united in celebration of our mutual friend’s birthday. Our dinner conversation was thus more fascinating and a great way to learn about one another. Each of us had nuanced takeaways about the experience.

Ok, get to the experience already, you say! Enough said.

The restaurant has a (well lit) lobby and bar area. Each party is presented with the menu and places its orders before escort to the dark dining room. Patrons can choose three courses from a variety of a la carte dishes or allow for one or more surprise courses not listed on the menu – which can really heighten the challenge of tasting and experiencing a meal. How often are we served a meal and have no idea what it is? Perhaps one might attend a potluck meal and presented with casseroles or other dishes that are not readily apparent – but still, we can guess the gist of the dish more or less. Adding the element of surprise is far more challenging than you might expect.

I figured that a completely unexpected dish was a little too far from my comfort zone (new meaning here to ‘mystery meat’), so I chose my three courses from the menu. That said, ONoir accommodates all diners’ dietary restrictions and allergies to prevent an unpleasant surprise. I chose a tuna Tataki starter, duck breast with blueberry-mustard sauce for my main course, and dark chocolate mousse for my dessert.

Shortly after placing our orders, our group was escorted to the dining room entrance, where we met our server. He laid out a few expectations and then instructed us to form a human chain, hands to shoulders, behind him- “the worst conga line ever,” quipped a British diner returning from a restroom break. He led us into complete darkness. It was far more disorienting than I expected, and I bumped into the foyer door before walking gingerly through the dark dining room. Once seated, we listened as the waiter explained the location of our place settings and then noted the table abutted a wall on one side. Our pre-ordered beverages greeted us shortly thereafter, and we were left to attempt to butter and eat bread and drink our beverages. It was then that we realized how critical these instructions were in our understanding of our environment. Without sight, we realized quickly that we needed to pay more attention to information available to our remaining senses.

Once again, I underestimated how cautious – and clumsy – I would be using utensils and reaching for a glass of wine, the simplest of activities that we take for granted. My butter missed the bread multiple times, and while knife skills have never been my strength (hilarious for a food blogger, right?), trying to manipulate the butter knife in darkness felt like using a club to extract butter from its tiny plastic cup. Wholly humbling. I noticed first that the flavor of the roll and the butter seemed more intense than it might be otherwise. We also instantly noticed how we needed to use our other senses to understand our surroundings – touch to pat the table, to understand spatially how far before we knocked our glasses (and how difficult, but not impossible, it was to clink 5 glasses from 5 different directions together for a toast), sound to locate other tables in relation to us or identify voices in a group conversation.

Next came our starters. I was instantly struck by my inability to get the bite I wanted. It seemed that either I got a very large bite of tuna, or I got a mouthful of the accompanying julienned root vegetables – never both or never the amount I was going for. It was more challenging to know whether I had cleaned my plate or left critical bites of tuna than anticipated. Nevertheless, I finished my starter without too much difficulty. Texture definitely played a larger role in my experience and identification of the components of this dish too.

My main course was served a bit after my friends’, so I had the opportunity to listen to their joy of discovery vicariously before my own. Once my own main course arrived, the larger portion and more numerous components were a step up on the level of challenge. I was unprepared for how handicapped I felt without the visual cues that help us experience our food. It is also much more difficult to handle and use a knife without sight. My attempts to cut my slices of duck proved futile, even with a decent steak knife. So I finally gave up.

I do love a good duck breast, but its skin tends to harbor quite a bit of fat, so I often cut it off.  Now knife impaired, I found myself with a few unpleasant mouthfuls of fatty duck skin. I do realize the skin is probably the best part of eating duck for many of you, so I apologize for my palate’s failure to recognize the virtues of fatty duck skin; crispy skin is another story. In spite of the textural difficulties, the duck had good flavor, though it was cooked a bit more than to my liking.

I think most of us fall into two sensory categories when it comes to eating a plate with variety: there are purists, and there are what I call (ok, I’m inventing it) combinists. A purist does not like his food to be contaminated by bites of other dishes and prefers to enjoy each individually. A combinist takes joy in the convergence of multiple flavors and textures in one bite. A purist would eat the duck alone and desire no other side dishes caught in a bite. A combinist would shovel a bit of duck and perhaps a starch and try to get a bit of glaze or sauce all on one fork.

I am a combinist. I like to see how flavors of different dishes commingle. But I have limits. I want to pick my bite. I don’t want to think I’m going for duck, sauce and celery root purée and instead get a carrot (in this case a parsnip masquerading in the dark as a carrot) with a piece of duck skin. And that’s pretty much what I was faced with. I thought I had remembered what I ordered, but i found myself faced with bites I wouldn’t have chosen if I could have seen what I was eating. I was confused and frustrated by my inability to figure out what exactly I was eating when. That tuna dish was so much easier!

This whole experience took much more time and effort to eat than usual. While I attempted to try to eat most of my plate, I didn’t go for the clean plate club the way I ordinarily might, had my sight been intact.

Now it was onto dessert. I had chosen chocolate mousse. I’ve had a lot of mousse in my day, so I expected it to be served in a dish or perhaps a stemless parfait glass. Instead it seemed to be molded onto the chilled plate. Unsure of where it began and ended, I mistakenly stuck my hand on it. Oops! The mousse was dense, cold and less fluffy than most mousses but nonetheless delicious with some sort of a raspberry gelée layer and a thin cookie foundation. A delicate tuile perched atop the mousse was a delicious garnish. I could have eaten several of them!

At the conclusion of the experience, as we were led back through our dining room maze – which made me realize how poor my spatial awareness was – my friends and I discussed our experience. Those that had ordered surprise courses found that they correctly identified some elements of their dishes, but not all of them. It was eye-opening (pun intended!) to realize how critical sight – and each sensory input – is to our experience of a dish. But we wouldn’t know what we were missing unless we experienced a meal without each one. I, for one, have always felt that my sense of smell and even the most subtle olfactory cues of food is the second most important such input to my eating experience. I now recognize there is so much more to our experience of food than just taste and smell. Texture, color, density, temperature, taste, smell – and the interplay of these elements all form our impressions of our meal. But even those indicators alone don’t fully explain our experience of food. Our most memorable meals are rarely eaten alone (well, maybe not so much if you are surrounded by a large family or others constantly).  A good meal becomes the best meal of your life when you enjoy it with special people.  That’s the element we can’t quite capture in cooking or travel blogs, magazine articles, or cooking shows.  And it’s probably the most elusive – and most treasured – element of the experience of food. 

At ONoir, my experience turned out to be most memorable. Not because of what I ate – I completely forgot what I ate two years later until I read the first draft of this post – but because it was a wonderful journey of discovery. In that evening, I learned more about myself, my dining companions, and even the human experience. That is no easy feat.  I highly recommend trying out ONoir yourself.  Not only will you experience dining in a much different context, but you’ll also support an inclusive employer of differently abled persons.  I have so much respect and appreciation for ONoir’s staff and their superpowers of vision without sight. 

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