This is not going to be a story of a botched blind date (so there’s only some kinds of ridicule I’ll open myself up to willingly and my dating chronicles such as they aren’t are not for the public domain). Nope this post is about what without exception qualifies as the most unique dining experience of my life so far. The dark restaurant experience. Correction. Make that the absolute black zero light pitch black dining experience. Something like this:

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Apparently it’s not a totally new concept, having been around for a few years now, but I only heard about it when I went googling online to see what was interesting and cool on the Berlin dining scene. One, actually two, of the names that popped up were these dark restaurants. The basic idea is to eat a meal in a restaurants where all the wait-staff is blind and experience the meal their way. Sounded intriguing And so when I had an evening in Berlin sort of a free, and a dinner companion as interested in fun dining experiences as I am – Helen Rizzo, a fellow Cairene on sabbatical who’s spending her research time in Berlin – I called, made a reservation and we went to Nocti Vagus.

We arrived and were greeted into a lounge where a waiter brought our menus to us. Okay… where was the dark we wondered? Duh! obviously we had to decide on our meal ahead of time obviously since learning Braille instantly in order to be able to “read” them in the dark is not a skill most diners are assumed to have. There were four menus – vegetarian, seafood, meat and “surprise.” Based on the the divine strawberries-and-chocolate concoction promised in the dessert section of the fish menu, Helen chose that one, and as for me, well surprise! surprise! of course I went for the surprise.

Before we were actually escorted to the dining area, our greeter at the lounge tipped us on the basics. Reminded us that the waitstaff was blind. Told us where to put our bags – on laps or under table but NOT under any circumstances on our chair backs. If we ever wanted anything – more drinks or to go to the toilets for instance, we were to call our server’s name, which the greeter supplied us with. Both Helen and I heard it the name as  Saviour – and repeated it aloud seemingly to our greeter’s satisfaction. I even made a weak joke about how he was indeed a savior to navigate us through the experience, but it seemed to go over the greeter’s head.  We were then led to a small antechamber one floor below the lounge where in a dim antechamber with a single square of light our greeter called out (almost yodeled really) “Saaa… vior”. Who upon arrival, we found much to our surprise was a young lady, not a man. It was only later when we heard her being called for by other dinner guests that we realized her name might have actually been Sylvia. But by then it was too late. Savior she had been and remained, as she continued to save us through the rest of the evening.

In the antechamber, our greeter positioned us to be led into the dining area, my hand on Helen’s shoulder, and hers on Savior/Sylvia’s. “Enjoy yourselves,” he said, warning me (in response to something I said about darkness – dunkel in German) that it wasn’t just dark in there, but pitch black. Exactly what he meant hit me fully the next second when he switched the light off. Zero light. Not a shape to be discerned.

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The eyes were obsolete indeed. At first one couldn’t help but try to strain to make out shapes etc but we quickly realized the futility. Once we sat, Savior showed us by touch where our cutlery and napkins were. She brought us our drinks – wine and beer for myself and Helen respectively. The wine came in a flagon but could be poured into the glass all at once. I had ordered a Spanish Rioja, full bodied and rich in flavor. Water, she warned us, had to poured with a finger inside the glass to make out the level so we’d know when to stop pouring.

Bread arrived, with a warning to feel in the basket for dip. Then the first course. My surprise appetizer had slices of a cold meat served with a compote that brought to mind the delectable cherry sauce I’d had at the Armenian restaurant in Beirut. The main course was another meat, warm this time, with a crunchy vegetable crust that reminded me of a sliced fennel bulbs only sharper. And dessert was a trio pf triumphs, a cool jelly a frozen morsel of yumminess and a custard. The most intriguing taste to me was the jelly – which I thought must have been made from a white wine. Hits and misses – the “cherries” turned out to be some wild berries no too far off the mark; fennel was wild garlic, and jelly was a Chardonnay (“you’re good!” the waitress upstairs was kind enough to tell me when I tried to play the guessing game later on).

Eating this meal made me realize anew, what a very visual world ours is. And how big a role visuals play in our meals, even for people like me, who don’t pay attention to presentation etc. as a rule. Everything I take for granted – reaching for a jug of water, knowing when to stop pouring, etc – had to be thought about. Textures, always an important element for my anosmic self, gained even more importance when I couldn’t see my food, and so did temperature. I also learned or rather relearned that despite my anosmia, I can indeed taste. Much to my gratification,  though not accurate, my guesses were apparently not much farther off the mark than most others who also ordered the surprise. Of course darkness lets us get away with certain faux pas. Eating continental meals with fingers for one or using the “wrong” fork. Much to my delight I didn’t spill anything on my clothes and being intrepid souls both Helen and managed to exchange morsels from multiple course and actually deposit them on each others plate and NOT on the table. Her fishies were wonderful too, by the way.

I should mention that there was also a show between the main course and dessert. Had we had time to plan earlier the one we wound up would not have been our choice since Helen and My combined German skills are not the best. I caught some jokes but ended up dozing a bit through the play especially since the eyelids just felt heavier in the dark anyway! Next time (if there is one) I’d opt for  a musical or the massage ???? version. Helen was told about that. Incidentally it did come up in conversation that with different company  this whole experience could take on an erotic tone. But not this time, I’m afraid(I mean she’s lovely but… by mutual agreement…)

Literary references? Well H.G. Wells’s Valley of the Blind came to mind briefly, but the most appropos one had to the line that my friend Paul Couto once quoted to me many years ago, something about the intensity of black by either Graves or Blake. I looked it up (hurray for Google!) and here it is in its entirety (btw it was Graves of I Claudius fame who wrote this one too):

Black drinks the sun and draws all colours to it.
I am bleached white, my truant love. Come back,
And stain me with the intensity of black.

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