By Charlotte Maitre
At CamaJe Bistro in the West Village, David Satnick ate a succulent meal of red snapper in a bath of chives and porcini mushrooms topped with pearls of caviar. He capped off the meal with a dessert of hot chocolate with bergamot creme and a raspberry patch. Until the very last bite, Satnick did not see what he was eating. He was blindfolded. On purpose.
Satnick and his wife, Monique Palladino, were among 10 couples to partake in the latest trend in dining: eating in the dark. For the privilege of sampling fine food in complete darkness, participants paid $250 a couple.
“Anytime you’re blindfolded in Greenwich Village, you’re taking a big chance,” said Satnick, an attorney, as he waited between courses.
The dark dining trend started in 1999 with a restaurant called the Blinde Kuh (the Blind Cow) in Zurich. Waiters there are either visually handicapped or completely blind, and sighted patrons join in the experience of maneuvering in the dark. Blinde Kuh has inspired a wave of copycat restaurants throughout Europe.
Acoustic designer Axel Rudolph founded a dark-dining restaurant in Cologne, Germany, in 2001. At the Unsicht-Bar, Rudolph hires blind staff members because of their ability to move around in the dark with ease. In Paris, Edouard de Broglie, a French entrepreneur, and Etienne Boisrond, a marketing specialist, opened Dans le Noir? in September 2004. They said they wanted to duplicate the experiences of blind people by offering sighted patrons the experience of temporary blindness.
In America, the phenomenon surfaced in Los Angeles last year at a now weekly event at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in West Hollywood. Food is served in total darkness, and guests are attended by visually impaired staff members.
Since beginning in July, the event has become so popular that plans are already under way to open two more restaurants devoted to dark dining in San Diego and San Francisco.
“It’s about exploring another world, understanding something beyond what we know,” said Benjamin Uphues, owner of Opaque, the restaurant that organizes the event at the Hyatt.
Dark Dining Projects, which organized the dark dining event at CamaJe Bistro in New York, echoes the concept with a few alterations. Servers at CamaJe are sighted. And instead of darkened dining rooms, the diners wear “mindfolds” throughout the event. The blindfolds have adjustable Velcro closures and foam pads that allow wearers to open their eyes and still experience an absolute blackout.
“The notion is that when people are blindfolded, obviously their other senses are heightened,” said Abigail Hitchcock, the 33-year-old restaurateur who opened CamaJe Bistro seven years ago. A private chef, she has appeared on television with Martha Stewart and currently juggles cooking lessons, wine tastings and culinary tours of various New York City neighborhoods. She started participating in dark dining events in the fall of 2005. All the sittings were sold out in 2005, and another event is planned for this year.
Before the dinner starts, participants register, leave their credit cards and don the blindfolds. They can neither take them off nor peek. They form a line and place their hands on the shoulder of an attendant who guides them to their tables. Once seated, they are forbidden to talk unless instructed. Two attendants are assigned to each table to help serve the food and prevent disasters like spilled chardonnay or an overturned breast of duck.
“From the chef’s perspective, it’s all about making food that is especially interesting, without being able to see it first,” Hitchcock said. “We initially eat with our eyes and everything has to be beautiful.”
On the night that Satnick and Palladino dined, the menu was a regal fete for all the other senses, even if the eyes couldn’t take part. Besides the red snapper, there was a seared foie gras in a maze of black olive croutons and blood orange sorbet, followed by spiced breast of duck on pillows of white beans. The menu is kept a mystery until the end of the evening, when the couples are led outside.
The temporary loss of sight gave couples the chance to experiment with their table manners. They fed each other, patted the plates, smelled each course repeatedly and slipped their fingers into the wine glasses.
“The most interesting thing is realizing that people are very willing to give up their fork,” Hitchcock said. “Almost everyone moves to their fingers. I think this is a very primal thing.”
Indeed, the couples seemed thoroughly uninhibited as they worked their way through the meal with their fingers. Such a challenge was exactly what Satnick and Palladino, an adventure-seeking couple who had recently returned from the Galapagos Islands, were looking for.
Satnick said the experience was not without anxiety. What he found most challenging was the absence of control.
“Eating with my fingers is not necessarily my favorite habit,” he said.
Joe Bore, a hedge fund technology specialist, went to the dinner with his wife, Najee, a hedge fund trading specialist. He experienced a similar discomfort.
“Eating without knowing what you’re eating was the main challenge,” he said. “You have to use your hands a lot more than you probably should.”
Najee said she was more distracted by the noise around her than by the food. She kept wondering about the reactions and conversations of the couples next to her. She said she recognized the flavors, but found it frustrating that she could not figure out what they were.
But Palladino liked the experience so much that she was eager to continue the process on the way home. “I am excited to continue the blindfold situation in the cab up to the apartment,” she said.