x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Dubai restaurant experiments with dining in darkness

At Nineteen, the attempt to give eating with friends a new sensory dimension by turning off the lights instead makes diners forget about each other.

A waiter serves food in darkness. Pawan Singh / The National
A waiter serves food in darkness. Pawan Singh / The National

"Bread basket?" volunteers Samantha, thrusting a pannier in what she presumes is my direction.

I wave a hand in the air, eventually land on something smooth and round, and plop it down in front of me. No point in asking whether it is the rosemary or olive and cheese variety, nor where the butter dish is - my attempts at stabbing a knife where I think it might be located are at best fruitless, at worst in danger of causing myself or someone else an injury.

This is Dine in the Dark, a new venture in Dubai that gets diners to eat in pitch darkness. The idea is that eating becomes a much more sensory experience as you touch, smell and savour your food rather than relying on sight.

By any standards, it's a novel way to enjoy a night out at a restaurant, although the concept is not a new one. Staff at Nineteen in The Address Montgomerie, Emirates Hills, got the idea from similar ventures in Europe and the US.

Is there any substance in the theory that a loss of vision heightens your other senses? The popular perception is that the blind have a highly developed sense of hearing.

Researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute in Canada recently tested both blind and sighted subjects and found those who were born blind scored highest on pitch perception.

In one test, subjects blocked one ear and were asked to identify where sounds were coming from in a room that had been fitted with hidden speakers. Half of the blind people were accurate in detecting the source.

But what about taste? Pepsi famously came up with the blind taste test challenge in 1975 to see whether customers preferred it to Coca-Cola. They did - until they saw the labels.

The notion behind eating in pitch blackness is that the lack of visual stimulation not only enhances your palate and makes you appreciate the true flavours of the food, but also affects how you interact socially and emotionally.

At Dans le Noir in London, Opaque in the US and Unsicht-Bar in Germany, diners are served by blind waiters. The restaurants waste no time in smugly pointing out the role reversal where "blind people actually become your eyes" - not so much the blind leading the blind as the blind leading the hungry.

Dans le Noir even holds themed evenings, although when I ask whether its in-house cookery lesson is conducted in the dark, the reservations manager snorts in derision and scoffs: "No - that would be ridiculous."

Hiring a professional belly dancer to entertain guests, however, is apparently perfectly acceptable - and no doubt worth it for the unwittingly entertaining footage of guests who, under cover of darkness, throw off all social restraints as they jerk spasmodically to the music, arms flailing wildly. One even tries twirling the belly dancer around.

Back in Dubai, where appearance is all-important, the practicalities of avoiding any embarrassing spillages seem to have bypassed most of the 36 guests. All are dressed to the nines in the most glamorous evening wear - either brave or foolhardy, considering there is a good chance they will shortly be wearing their meal.

Giant-size napkins help, although bibs might have been more useful. We are given a brief run-through on where our cutlery and glasses are placed while the lights are still on.

Staff are bracing themselves for breakages; indeed, Geoffrey Atonya, who has given himself the rather grandiose title of "water captain", has already smashed a couple of glasses in a practice run. For unlike some darkened restaurants where the waiters are given night-vision goggles, the staff at Nineteen will also be fumbling their way around in the dark as they serve the seated diners. Health and safety executives would have a field day in this place.

Vast windows that usually offer a picturesque view of the golf course have been blacked out for the purpose of tonight's escapades; a heavy black curtain has been draped at the entrance to ensure no light trickles through. For extra measure, we are given eyemasks for a complete blackout experience.

Having little faith in my own ability to detect flavours, I have brought along Samantha Wood, a food blogger, as my backup. We are seated with a family of four and the lights go out.

There is a moment of silence as everyone adjusts to the dark and a few nervous giggles. And then the strangest thing happens. A cacophony of noise erupts as everyone attempts to talk at once.

Without being able to see who else is speaking and no concept of the distance between themselves and other diners, people are talking over each other and any volume gauge goes out of the window. Civilised, muted conversation is impossible; it is more of a case of shouting at each other. Bang goes the theory of improved hearing, then.

The first mystery course is ferried out and after a grope for cutlery (there is no point in adhering to the formality of working your way in from the outside), we dig in.

The initial attempts to get anything on a fork prove futile; I simply taste cold, hard metal. On the third try, I get a mouthful of what seems like mashed potato. Samantha insists there is asparagus in there somewhere, so I persevere, but simply get more mashed potato - until an explosion of revoltingly strong fish roe in my mouth.

There is a quiver of apprehension from the family at our table. Mrs B, who declares she has an adventurous palate, wanted to give Dine in the Dark a go as she thought it would be "unique".

Mr B is rather more cautious: he dislikes anything raw. "Everything has to be cremated," he says apologetically.

But there is no room for picky diners here where it is impossible to see what you are eating and he gamely ploughs on.

Course two is brought out and again, all I taste is mashed potato. I start to wonder if this is a bad joke to see if we can spot that we are being fed four identical dishes. Wait, there are globules of a strong-tasting cheese - Gorgonzola? Roquefort? - which lead me to conclude it is risotto. That, and the fact the waiter accidentally asks how I like my risotto.

Mrs B is rather less impressed and by course three - a sort of deep-fried fish stick on more mashed potato - announces: "I don't like any of it."

It turns out she is not just talking about the food. She hates Dubai. She dislikes brunches. She can't abide the people.

It seems the dark does impinge on social interactions - by removing any inhibitions or normal social etiquette. Not only are we invisible, it seems they have forgotten we are here.

As she rants, I feel Samantha gripping my knee under the table in a silent code. At least, I hope it's Samantha.

In the gloom - we quickly abandon the eyemasks and start to make out vague shadows as our eyes adjust - we can see Mr B hunching over his plate. He, at least, says he has enjoyed his meal, which has surprised him as a fussy eater.

By the time dessert is served, Samantha has given up and whips out her mobile phone to use the light as a torch. She has barely touched a thing and wails: "I'm still hungry."

I'm guessing there is ice cream involved but all I can taste is cold mashed potato. My palate seems to disprove the theory that our sense of taste is enhanced when sight is removed. If anything, not being able to see is more confounding.

Samantha agrees: "For me, food is about colour and presentation as well as taste, texture and smell. If you take the first two out of the equation, the eating experience is restricted and a little odd."

As soon as the meal is over, the entire restaurant empties out into the lit bar, grateful to shed some light on what we have just consumed. We learn the Dh495 meal consisted of white asparagus panna cotta with oysters, stuffed chicken breast and cuttle fish fries on celeriac purée and deconstructed banoffee pie with popcorn ice cream.

And therein lies the problem: it is food which is just too clever for its own good, when what you want are simple, tactile, textured dishes that stimulate your olfactory receptors as well as your taste buds.

As a social experiment however, it is fascinating - although Mr and Mrs B might not be in a hurry to return.