Not Seeing is Believing: Opaque's Dining in the Dark
Seeing the menu for the first and only time in the lounge, before nothing else will be seen. (Lindsay William-Ross/LAist)
"Close your eyes, give me your hands..." Okay, yes, that's the start of a Bangles' ballad, but it's a lot like how an evening of Dining in the Dark at Opaque starts, too. Stripping away one of your key senses just for one meal, diners who take the plunge into pitch black and pick up their forks experience what it's like to lean on the other four senses.Recently LAist was invited to check out Dining in the Dark, which takes place every Friday and Saturday night here in Los Angeles at the V Lounge in Santa Monica, and in other cities all over the world. Dining in the Dark is trend imported from Europe, where major cities have been putting on dinners in total darkness with great response from diners for some time, and Opaque has enjoyed its incarnation here in Los Angeles for the past couple of years.
Arriving just around sunset one balmy early summer night, my dining companion and I perched nervously in Opaque's waiting lounge. Here, the lights are dim and purply--it is a nightclub after all--which helps to ease you into the darkness of what's to come. Here is also where you peruse your brief menu, and select which of the salad, entree, and dessert options you'll have in your prix fixe 3-course dinner. One last trip to the restroom is in order while you wait, just to ward off the chance of having to abandon the sheath of darkness during the meal for temporary sight. "I hear that people can sometimes start to go crazy if they are deprived of their sight for a long time," I whisper nervously to my co-diner. She laughs.
This is where you came in--the moment when you're introduced by the hostess to your visually impaired server for the night. The server tells you to not be shy to just shout out their name if you need anything. And to place your hands on her shoulders, and do the like with all the guests in the party to form a sort of chain...because you're about to be plunged into total darkness.
It's a bit of a maze going in--or so it feels. There are floor to ceiling black curtains you must pass through, each set putting you in an even darker space than before. It's a bit like the blindfolded wind-up treatment you get as a kid about to try to pin the tail on the donkey--the more you spin the more disoriented you'll be when it comes time to try to identify the animal's posterior and align it with the sharp point of the pin. Is it maybe that the more lefts and rights through curtains we take--was that a pole we just wove around?--as we enter the dining room will make it harder for us to get a sense of place and space? You'll never know, really.
The first challenge, besides the unflinching darkness, is to find your chair. Not just with your knees and your now-freed-up hands, but your bottom. It's the first clue that we take an awful lot of basic acts for granted, like finding the seat and placing ourselves in it without missing. Our server points out some table basics: Where the water glasses are, where the bread basket is. There are rose petals strewn on the table; you find this out because you can't help put tap-tap-tap your palm in your immediate environs, and the petals' feel is familiar. (Note to self, you think, don't eat one of those by mistake.) There's no peeking in here, either; cellphones are verboten, lest the light compromise the total blackness of the room. It's a bit liberating to set the iPhone on silent, as instructed, and drop it in my purse for the course of the night--no Twitter, no text messaging, no looking at the time. If only I can figure out where I should set my purse...
If sitting down was the first challenge, buttering the bread is the next. Have you ever buttered a piece of bread with your eyes closed? Try it. First, find the bread basket, and pick your piece (Is the bread swaddled in a cloth napkin? Where do you find your piece?) then locate your knife, the butter dish, and your bread plate. Great, you're getting there. Now, dip the knife tip in the butter...wait a minute! How deep do I dip it? How much am I scooping out? A King's portion or a beggar's? Where did I put that piece of bread again? Now, am I getting the butter to go evenly from one end to the other of the slice?
There are probably a few buttered hands on any given night in Opaque. It's a skill you don't often think about performing without your eyes, no matter how many slices of bread you've applied butter to in your life to date. The bread is good, and the butter (thankfully) soft and malleable.
Before the first course of salad there's an amuse bouche. In many restaurants, this is the chef's little nod to you, their honored guest, and is often a small bite that reflects the culinary journey you're about to take, with a charming and inventive visual presentation. Here, it's another opportunity to play with your food and your mind at the same time. It arrives on an Asian-style soup spoon; you can smell that there's something fragrant on the spoon--suddenly when pairing adjectives to something you can't see words aren't coming as fast as you're accustomed to. It's something ripe, I guess. Something fresh (as opposed to fried, boiled, mashed...I suppose). I bite. Tomato. It's a relief to have identified it. Sure, the tautness of the skin, the give of the flesh, the pungent note of the goo that surrounds the seeds.
As we wait for our salads we can't help but marvel at the experience. Things I thought about: How close are the next tables? Do those other diners seem louder to me because I can't see them? Where are things located in the room?
It's tempting to try to invent a layout for the space, which I do as our salads are set before us, and our server--her voice, the mass of warm cells that appears to my right out of seemingly nowhere--disappears again. I imagine that someone's job is to watch the dining room via night-vision cameras to make sure no one is stabbing themselves or another patron with their steak knife, and that no one is engaged in any hanky panky. I mug for the (imaginary?) cameras. Why not? My friend can't see me.
Actually, my friend has confessed she's been closing her eyes. Mine have been open, although I notice I'm looking up to where I imagine the ceiling to be and not at my plate of salad greens. It's a baby greens salad with crumbles of blue cheese and candied walnuts. It's a treat to find the walnuts, but, as I soon discover, much easier to find with your fingers. The salad itself is average, but the act of attempting to fork and land a mouthful is priceless. I feel a piece of dressing-soaked lettuce land on my shirt (find my napkin, find its end, find the water glass, dip it in water, find the spot, try to dab it) and decide if there ever was a place outside a crabfest where a bib on an adult was acceptable and not out of the ordinary, this was the place. Up went the napkin into my shirt's neckline. My fingers--I abandoned the fork--found something surprising at the end of the plate, though.
"It's kind of cold and clammy!" I tell my friend. We're baffled. They're playing with our minds! I bravely fumble to pick it up and sniff--not much to smell--and then bite. Oh. It's a cold spring roll. It's incongruous to the salad, but a clever addition to the plate, if that makes sense. It would get panned by a critic in a heartbeat at any other restaurant. But here--you've been played, a bit like if you've ever wandered into a "haunted house" where you're asked to close your eyes and stick you hands into a bowl of eyeballs. Err, grapes.
Meanwhile, other diners are being seated. There's a large party to the left, another table maybe behind. Some girl is talking about Facebook. Someone ordered the vegetarian option--I can smell the spiced tomato sauce as it floats by me. I'm beginning to be convinced it's getting lighter in here, but this is possibly the first warning signs of my impending insanity.
The main course--we've both chosen the steak--arrives. The meat is precut for the most part, but a wooden-handled steak knife has been placed on the plates. Our server doesn't play tutor to tell us what's at Noon or 3 o'clock on our plates, though. Actually, it's almost impossible to understand what she's saying; she's got a soft voice and although she's addressing me she isn't aiming her voice my way. We're alone again, and the plate seems gigantic to me--massive in fact, as I trace the rim with both hands.
The main course is pretty tasty, actually. The meat seems to be cooked as we'd ordered, but we're going by taste and texture alone--no glance at its pinkness here. The steak knife seems out of the question after my first botched attempt, and so it's back to my fingers, as I try to scoop up a piece of meat when I want one, and to find the vegetables. There's some spinach to my left on the plate (7 o'clock, perhaps?) and to my displeasure I locate the starch, which had been omitted from the menu, at the top left of my plate. It's some sort of sticky rice, and not a good pairing with the meat and vegetables. It was disappointing to not have a potato item on the plate, and I was miffed we hadn't been warned about the rice.
When you can't see what's on your plate, how you pace your eating becomes vital--a challenge. Being a diner who prefers to balance the meal between bites of the different elements on the plate, it came as a shock to realize I'd picked up, chewed, and swallowed, my last bite of steak--the true highlight of the main course. My fingers tapped the rest of the plate, skimming the offensive rice, sliding over puddles of sauteed mushrooms, dipping into mounds of spinach. "I didn't know I was done with the meat!" exclaimed my dining companion. Do we as humans savor a "last bite" more when we know it's our "last bite"? Apparently so.
In the lull between the entree and dessert we experience a person arriving at our table on the opposite side. It's a man--different energy is perceptible immediately--and he leans over to tell us that when he counts to three out loud shortly, we're to begin singing "Happy Birthday" to someone named Josh. A few minutes later we hear the count, and the whole room erupts in song. The birthday boy has no idea it's for him, however, until we're almost at the end. How do I know? Well, for one, there's no one holding a cake with lit candles making their way towards him. We're not all staring at him, either--at least I know I'm not because I have no idea where in the room he is. But when we get to "dear Jo-osh" in the song, he lets out a "Oh my god!" followed by laughter. You might know it's your birthday, but you don't know it's your birthday song in the dark until they say your name.
Dessert arrives, and it's a chocolate lava cake. Sniff, pat, tap, taste; there are fresh berries, some whipped cream, and a sprig of mint on the plate. It's hard to build the perfect bite of this dish (forkful of cake, some whipped cream, one raspberry) so each element gets eaten separately, which means the cake seems a little dry, save the gooey "lava" part. I admitted to my dining companion that the dark was wearing on me; she agreed. It's overwhelming, and while it felt like we were being served at lightening speed, it's actually been a long time since we were seated. I know I'm not going crazy, as I jokingly suggested before we'd been seated, but I realized I was using my senses and body to eat in a different way. It's like trading in the treadmill for yoga; it's a workout still, but you're using your muscles differently.
After dessert we told our server we were ready to go. She urged us up from our seats, and we reformed the chain and wove our way through the dining room back towards the curtains--only this time there were more people in our path at tables that had been previously emptied. After the first set of curtains I could feel the light from the outer room filtering in at the edges, and then we were back in the lounge, blinking furiously to try to adjust. The lounge was still empty, but the music had been switched on at some point during the meal (I heard the bass creep through the curtains and walls, and it seemed so very loud) but it wasn't as loud as I'd imagined. We stepped back out into the night air.
It was a curious drive home--headlights and streetlights and neon signs did seem so much brighter--and the meal had left us full to the gills, and the experience with a lot on our minds. "It's more about the experience," my friend surmised, and I'd agree. The food is good, but certainly not great. But being essentially blind for a couple of hours and attempt to perform a rather standard skill set was unparallel.
Is Opaque about the novelty? Or a morality play about the visually impaired enacted in our own sort of hands-on dinner theatre? I'm not really sure. Would I do it again? Sure, but with some differences; I'd like to try different food items, or perhaps be given small bites of mystery items (like the palate-testing segment of most Chef competition TV reality shows) and be challenged to identify them. Our server didn't ask us to guess the herb or fruit--in fact, she didn't interact with us much at all, which is also something I wish were different.
But as far as LA's Opaque: It's worth it for the experience. Shake it up. Take the plunge. Give them your hands and let them guide you into the darkness. The food won't stick in your mind, but the meal will.
Opaque: Dining in the Dark
@V Lounge Santa Monica
2020 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica
310 546 7619
Dinner, Fridays & Saturdays only. $99/person for three course meal (meat, chicken, fish & veggie options available)