Bangkok Post reviews
Dark Night Rises
- Writer: Bangkok Post Editorial
- Published: September 7, 2012 at 8:26 am
Taste, smell and touch comes to the fore in the pitch-black Bangkok restaurant that deprives you of sight
Isniffed, I forked and I used my bare fingers to feel what was on the plate in front of me. Then I put it in my mouth, let it linger, hoping it would reveal itself.
Along with other, unseen, curious diners in the pitch-black room, I was pulling together three of my senses (smell, touch and taste) simply to figure out whether what I was enjoying was a shrimp or a mushroom.
Eating has never been this inscrutable.
Not only was it the first time that I had a meal in the dark, but also the first time that I put my nose so close to the food it dipped in the sauce.
Yet I wasn't embarrassed about it, as I was not humiliated when the straw poked my forehead as I began to sip my orange juice. Or that I may have had pieces of vegetable stuck to my front teeth while carrying on the zesty conversation with my companions who might also have had traces of food on their lips.
Dining has never seemed this hilarious.
It was a recent Thursday evening that I had my first experience eating in utter darkness at DID, or Dine in the Dark, Bangkok's only sight-free restaurant.
Though I was not that kind of sceptical person, I found that almost every aspect of my two-hour dinner turned out to be completely different from what I had generally predicted.
The ambience (chatty dining room lulled by contemporary lounge tunes), the quality of food (both Thai and Western dishes that we had were brilliant), the service (our host-cum-guide was very friendly) and even the pricing (850 baht for a three-course meal inclusive of water and fruit juice) all made the evening comforting rather than adventurous.
DID was first launched in January by veteran restaurateurs Julien Wallet-Houget and Benjamin Baskin, with an initial aim of introducing something new to Bangkok's restaurant scene while providing employment for visually impaired people.
Therefore, unlike some dark dining establishments in other parts of the world that feature sighted service staff wearing night-vision goggles, all 15, multi-lingual hosts at the 60-seat DID are visually impaired people who have been trained to guide and give assistance to sighted customers. Despite its social commitments, DID positions itself as a fine dining business where gourmet cuisine, pleasant ambience, efficient service and great entertainment perfectly combine, well, in the dark.
Guests can expect to find a jazz night on Sundays, traditional Thai music and poetry on Wednesdays, an acoustic duet on Fridays and guitar recital on Saturdays. According to the owners, the restaurant is completely packed on weekends, and 70% of its clients are Thais.
Given the original concept of dining in the dark is done in silence, live music is uncommon for this type of establishment.
"In the dark people tend to reset and be more open to new experiences.
"Darkness doesn't just heighten their sense of taste, but also allows them to better appreciate other senses they may have taken advantage of," Baskin said.
"The idea of having live music in the dark was to provide a sense of mystery. Of course you are able to hear a lot more of the notes while letting your imagination flow."
There have been full houses for the past two months for the Wednesday Siamese night, featuring amazing ancient music performances and poetry readings. According to Wallet-Houget, the initial idea was to have a cultural night orientated toward foreign customers. Yet the event turned out to be popular among Thais.
''It's not common that you got to hear these instruments nowadays, let alone in the dark. Imagine when someone does a short introduction of Phra Aphai Manee, and then the musician starts playing the flute, it will bring you back to the time of Soonthon Phu and make you get goosebumps,'' co-owner Wallet-Houget said.
''Our guests react differently [with the visionless experience]. Some get extremely emotional, some get excited and some get very calm, depending on their personality, cultural perspective and the people they come with.''
Baskin added: ''In the dark, people become more sensational. A lot of them get very reflective on their life. They start to think of all the scenarios and situations they've been through and that's a reflective kind of process.
''It takes a bit of preparation and effort to get ready for the experience. People may doubt the concept, but their perceptions will completely turn around. It could be a great dinner for quality time and amazing conversation that isn't interrupted by people passing by or answering their BlackBerry.'' Both Baskin and Wallet-Houget said that dining in the dark is not easy to set up or operate, and anything could go wrong because people are put in an unusual situation.
''Food is always a big challenge. It took a series of trials and errors to get the right portions and the right tastes that will delight a wide variety of diners whether it be tourists or locals,'' said Baskin who also oversees the operation.
''We had to go through a process in which we tried different food while closing our eyes and learn how they would sit on our forks.
''We also needed to make sure that the combination on the plate from the variety of ingredients, the flavours, or the textures, would go nicely together. It is fine dining.
''We will not just write it off and say, 'Hey it's such a unique concept and people will come just because it's in the dark'. In fact, we take it a step further.''
DID's cuisine is prepared in a well-lit kitchen by Cordon Bleu trained chefs who take extra caution with some ingredients as well as bones and seeds. Diners will be asked if they are allergic to any specific food and the kitchen will be notified. Diningware, cutlery and drinking glasses, too, are thoughtfully selected to be easy to use without the help of sight.
Wallet-Houget added: ''It is a big cost and effort to train and maintain our [service staff]. Right now we have a great team of hosts. They are always happy and enthusiastic, willing to learn, willing to help and willing to teach us something as well. And it's important to have a good support team around them.''
Entering the pitch dark, 60-seat dining room, diners are required to walk in line with their hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them.
The extraordinary concept of purposefully dining with a complete loss of vision was concocted in Switzerland by a blind clergyman who asked guests to wear blindfolds to show solidarity and to better understand his world.
This paved the way for the first dark restaurant in Zurich in 1999 where blindfolded diners were served by visually impaired staff in a well-lit room.
Today there are about 15 dark-dining restaurants in big cities worldwide including Paris, London, Berlin, California, Melbourne, Moscow and Hong Kong.
Dine in the Dark is located on the 2nd floor of Ascott Sathorn, South Sathon Road. It opens 6.30pm to 11pm (seating time is 6.30pm to 9pm). Call 02-676-6676 for more details and reservations.
FOLLOW THE VOICES
Phaisarn Sae Lee
A graduate in French language for business from Ratchaphat Suan Dusit University. This visually impaired but ever-smiling 31-year old is a freelance transcriber who has been working as a restaurant host for six months.
''Being a restaurant host is a great experience that I had never imagined I could accomplish. In the light I usually get help from sighted people, but when it's pitch dark I become the person they need to depend on.
''Of course, the job comes with challenges since we also have to solve any immediate problems which occur in the dining room, but many turned out to be funny. For example, there were a couple of occasions that I was disconnected from my guests on the way to the table and I thought, 'Oh my God I lost the guests'. So I wandered around trying to find them. Just when I felt completely baffled they began to call my name. I'm sure they were playing hide and seek with me because they intentionally made no noise during that few minutes.
''Of the dining in the dark affair, the feedback I've received from the guests were all good. But even better is the fact that many customers have come back for a second or third time. It makes me think that our customers don't come because it's unusual but because it's really good.''
A psychology graduate from England. The voluble and highly affable 28-year-old girl is an English-Thai translator of magazine articles by day and a restaurant host by night.
''Normally I love working in the service industry, but with this job I feel even more valuable as it made me realise I could do many things I never imagined, especially assisting people with good sight. There are various kinds of impressions I get from this job, from fun, strange, exciting to hilarious. But I really love what I'm doing and will stay in this job.''