May 7, a Wednesday afternoon, I arrived at the Toronto Airport (Pearson). Then I took a $60 cab ride to my hotel in the Church-Wellesley Village - a celebrated gay neighbourhood. I was wondering what I should do for my brief time in the city. I only had one night and I would be gone the very next day. I don't know anyone in Toronto, although I do have some relatives - we're not close. It would have been awkward to contact them after so many years.
So I called up the front desk after checking in, and asked about nearby restaurants. A nice one over here, a decent burger place over there, but his first mention piqued my interest the most - a restaurant where you dine in the dark. I had heard about the Montreal location before, on tv and in magazines, but I never thought I'd have the opportunity to visit one. Well, one night in Toronto with the likelihood of never returning, pushed my decision to a clear one. I would make a reservation at this unusual restaurant and take in a whole new experience.
What is this restaurant I speak of? A place called O.Noir. You sit completely in pitch black while blind servers bring you your meal. When I called the restaurant to make the reservation, they asked me for how many. I said, "Just me," to which he replied, "Just you? Are you sure? Are you afraid of the dark? Will you be alright?" I laughed easily at his response and reassured him that I would be just fine. So he tentatively made the reservation. I thought this restaurant was the perfect idea - not only is it a truly unique experience, but I also spent all day on a plane and didn't care to dress up. No one would see me! It doesn't get any better!
The time came around and I headed down to the restaurant, literally - it's underground. Which makes sense if they wish to create a completely pitch black experience. They would need absolutely no chance of natural light. The restaurant entrance features a long, dimly lit corridor that opens into a dead end with a bar and a few tall tables and a couple of low benches against the wall. It's quiet, a bit dark, and the ornate carvings around the bar along with the library wall make the place feel classier. On another wall there are large painted circles representing the alphabet in Braille. A nod to what the restaurant really features - a blind experience.
Upon entry, a hostess checked my reservation by memory and handed me a menu. You can choose either 2 courses (appetizer/entree, entree/dessert) or all 3 (appetizer, entree, and dessert). There were just a few selections for each course. I ignored them altogether. I noticed you could pick a surprise item instead, so when I ordered, I inquired about having all 3 courses be a surprise. I made one important note: I'm allergic to shrimp. Then I ordered a glass of Malbec and waited for my table.
I didn't wait very long before my table was ready. I was escorted to a door by the hostess where she released the name of my server and told me to wait. A small, brown man appeared from behind the door and stood erect before me. He repeated his name and made friendly banter. He asked if I was staying in the nearby hotel, I said "yes". He then said, "I thought I saw you in the lobby". I was dumbstruck for a moment, not really getting the joke until I realized that he was indeed blind and made it impossible for him to see me. I laughed and he smiled. I could tell he was a good server.
He asked me to put my left hand on his left shoulder and he would walk me inside. He knocked, then opened the first door. We entered a little alcove of complete darkness. Then he mentioned another door, knocked again and opened it. A waft of laughter and smells hit my senses as my sense of sight was completely cut off. He carefully navigated me through the dark maze and put my hand on the back of a chair. At first I attempted to sit down, but noticed I tried to sit on the wrong side. Then I tried again, but realized it wasn't pulled out. If it wasn't so dark, I might have been embarrassed. Finally, I pulled out the chair and sat down successfully. He asked, "safe landing?" I replied with a happy "yes".
That's when he introduced me to my close surroundings. There was a place mat, a fork, a spoon and a napkin. He told me to align my place mat with my chair. I then noticed the place mat was off center and quickly fixed that. The server disappeared and returned with my glass of wine which I carefully placed near the wall. I sat and waited in the dark. I could hear the chatter and hum of nearby conversations but struggled to make out the words. I noticed that the tables were separated by large gaps - so there would be a enough room to maneuver. I also noted that there must have been only 7 or 8 tables in the section. How could I tell? I listened to the different areas conversation emanated, I paid attention to noteworthy outbursts, and who left.
I know a few things about perception and sensation (due to my time in university). One of them is that it takes 8 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark. After 8 minutes, there was no difference. I waved a hand in front of my face, I blinked, and saw nothing - no difference. I have never been swallowed by that amount of darkness before. I've never known what it's like to sit in true pitch black. I didn't feel afraid - and I think it was in large part due to the fact there were so many happy voices. Although, I must admit, if I had to spend an eternity living in a place with darkness and muffled voices, it might be a little too much like hell. I suddenly have a new understanding and empathy for the visually impaired.
Now for the meals - as I mentioned earlier, I ordered all surprises. The first course was set in front of my plate and my server commented, "I hope you like it alive and kicking". I laughed and heard him shuffle away. I stabbed my fork in to the plate and brought it to my mouth - I took the bite and discovered it was leafy. I kept eating and put my palate to the test. What did I think I was eating, exactly? Since I have quite a lot of experience with flavours, I thought I was up to the challenge. My best guess is that it was a spinach, arugula salad with kale sprouts, dried cranberries and a drizzle of lemon/raspberry vinaigrette. I had a difficult time getting all of the salad on to my fork, so there were a few times I assisted with my fingers. Thank goodness there was a napkin and no one could see.
Whenever I felt the need to quench my thirst, I would have to reach blindly in front of me, carefully feeling for the wine glass. I would sip just a little at a time, and take time to consider the weight sloshing around in the chalice. The next meal was the entree. I once again blindly stabbed at my plate in the dark before bringing the fork to my curious lips. My tongue greeted the bite with new found excitement. My teeth chewed the seared animal flesh with delight. The texture, the savoury taste, the warmth tickled my senses. Each bite brought me closer to knowledge. I finally decided that it was braised pork tenderloin medallions with wild rice, roasted potatoes, and tomatoes. The tomatoes were probably the most frightening aspect. I'm not a fan of any kind of cooked tomatoes. The texture is unappealing. I pierced my fork into one and brought it to my mouth. Much to my chagrin, the thing burst inside of my mouth like a polyp. I immediately spat it out. Something I've literally never done before in my life. Eating in the dark caused me to behave with a little less discrimination. After my unfortunate bite, I avoided the tomatoes altogether. Then I heard a shrill scream, and an exclamation about an eyeball. I knew immediately that the girl meant the tomatoes. It was like an eyeball. I reiterate, cooked tomatoes are unpleasant.
I was quite satisfied with the meat choice, however the potatoes were boring, the tomatoes were frightening, and the rice was very difficult to eat with a fork. I felt like it was a poor choice for eating blindly. I certainly used my fingers a little. I would have used a knife to push food on to my fork, however they only provided a fork and spoon. Probably a wise decision in the vast scheme of things.
I sat in the dark for long stretches of time between meals and sips. I tried to eavesdrop, however most of the talking was muffled by space and other conversations. There was a couple who sat behind me, I met them briefly in the foyer before entering the dining space. They were my closest conversation, and from the pieces I could hear, they were there for their anniversary. What made me a little frustrated was the lack of attention from my server. Not his fault, I understand his priorities, but I felt neglected. The mix of muffled conversations, doors closing, and shuffling feet, left my with a fuzzy silence. I sat in contemplation, letting my mind wander over every topic. Mostly, eating alone in the dark is not ideal.
Before dessert even arrived, it was brought to the couple behind me - they eagerly proclaimed that was it cheesecake. I waited until they had finished their dessert and were escorted out of the dining room, before I received my dessert. It was cheesecake. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy cheesecake. It just wasn't a surprise after all. Despite that, I dug into the cake indiscriminately. I savoured each thick, squishy bite. It was a little heavy, but it was still good. It was covered in a berry and chocolate drizzle, which I licked greedily from my fork.
After I finished, I sat there and listened. There were all sorts of people coming and going. Each time I would want to leave, someone else would ask the server's help. Eventually, I was able to ask the server for his assistance. He escorted me out of the restaurant and I thanked him for his help. He was a sweet, short man with a nice smile. He departed with a little head nod before slipping back in to the darkness beyond the door. I squinted, suddenly grateful for the dim lighting. After a brief, friendly chat with the hostesses and clearing up my bill, I headed back to my hotel room.
O.Noir is probably the most memorable, strangest dining experiences I've ever had. The food was honestly a tad mediocre. There wasn't any real flavour, and the meals were too simple. I was desperately hoping for food that made my senses jump for joy. Although I wasn't blown away by the dessert or salad, the pork tenderloin in the entree was delicious. Out of all the meals, it was the one saving grace. Despite the food being average, the experience is so unique and mind bending, that nothing can compare. You're forced to rely on everything but your eyes. I've never experienced darkness like that before, and I doubt I will again. I'm grateful for that experience, I'm glad that I had the opportunity to step in someone's shoes. I would definitely recommend dining at O.Noir (or any similarly themed restaurant) for the chance to share some true privacy. It's a world unexplored by most.
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