The best food I've tasted - but never seen
When it comes to dining, how important is what you see? I ponder this as I place my hand on the shoulder of Magid, our waiter, my friend puts her hand on my shoulder, and we plunge into the inky blackness of Unsicht-Bar, a restaurant named for the German word for invisible.
Our slow-motion conga line snakes through a labyrinth that excludes every photon of light from the interior of the eatery. My friend's grip tightens as we emerge into an open space where, judging by ear, about half a dozen dinner parties are in the middle of their meals.
Magid stops, places our hands on chairs, and in a reassuring baritone invites us to sit. I wave my hand in front of my face - unable to see it - and am amazed and slightly panicked by the utter darkness.
If the growing number of restaurants such as Unsicht-Bar is any indication, feasting on unseen food in an opaque room is an experience that appeals to many diners. Since the first sightless restaurant opened in 1999 in Zurich, Switzerland, dark dining has gradually spread across Europe, with similar restaurants sprouting in Paris and in Cologne, Berlin, and Hamburg, Germany. Another will open in Basel, Switzerland, next year.
Waiters in these restaurants are usually blind, like Magid. The reason, I'm told, is that it's simply too difficult for a sighted person to learn how to navigate a dark, busy restaurant holding heavy trays of food and beverages.
The trend hasn't arrived in the British Isles or North America, says Guy Dimond, food and drink editor of Time Out London, but some London and New York restaurants have experimented with singles nights in the dark, where strangers woo without judging looks.
He believes this trend will last.
For some, the appeal of dining in the dark is the curiosity of sharing the experience of a blind person. For others, as Axel Rudolf, the founder of Unsicht-Bar in Cologne contends, it may be that subtracting sight from the dining equation enhances the pleasure of a meal by forcing the remaining senses to be keener.
One obvious difference is the need to pay close attention to your environment. We hear the sound of a glass tipping over at a nearby table, unleashing a cascade to the floor. The unfortunate diner's dismay is more desperate than the situation would merit under normal (well-lit) circumstances, but a waiter arrives immediately with soothing words and a towel.
I take the incident as a cautionary tale and memorize the position of every object on the table: glass at 10 o'clock, bread basket at 2, cutlery and napkin at 3.
Because diners aren't allowed to bring in matches, flashlights, or lighters, a restaurant staff member will lead a patron to a candlelit bathroom when necessary.
Just as my nervousness builds to the point where I'm considering an unneeded restroom break, the scent of garlic and fish starts my mouth watering. Magid sets down plates in front of us. After some cautious poking with my finger, I realize I'm dealing with a salad topped by crushed nuts and a yogurt dressing.
Our first stop in the restaurant had been a candlelit room where we were given a menu with three options - vegetarian, fish, and meat - but the actual dishes were not revealed. What turned out to be braised duck in cream sauce was described as "a feather gliding across the water toward a creamy harbor."
In short order, I discover that it's difficult to use a fork you can't see. It arrives at my mouth with way too much - or nothing - on it. Eventually, I adapt to the point where I am using the fork in one hand with the help of a probing/guiding finger on the other hand. After all, there's no one to see me.
This may be one of the main advantages to the dark restaurant, muses Michael Pöppl, a Berlin restaurant reviewer. He disagrees with the idea that the remaining senses grow keener in the absence of sight. One evening isn't enough time to adapt, he says. Instead, "you don't have all the visual distractions of a normal restaurant, so you are forced to take time to concentrate on the food. This slow pace is what is special."
Halfway through my main course of what I'm guessing is baked fish, herbed new potatoes, and braised broccoli, I agree with Mr. Pöppl's assessment. Surveying the plate with archeological care and eating the fish flake by flake seem to elevate the meal to a higher level. I almost hoot with delight when I encounter a cherry tomato in an unexplored sector of my plate.
I can't say it tastes different from any other cherry tomato, but I feel as though I've discovered a glint of gold after months of underwater treasure hunting.
Near the end of the meal, I detect an unusual advantage to dining in the dark. Like nearly all restaurants in Berlin, Unsicht-Bar has no air conditioning, so by the time we're sipping a final espresso, I'm damp with perspiration. Without even thinking about it, I take off my shirt for a few minutes to cool off.
Try that in a brightly lit restaurant.