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Opaque - Dining in the Dark

Seeing is Believing

I’m not sure if it was my mild claustrophobia or the prospect of soiling the sequined evening gown I foolishly chose to don that evening, but I was feeling more than a little apprehensive as I walked down the narrow staircase into the Crimson Lounge, which doffs its red cape every Thursday through Saturday night and becomes Opaque “Dining in the Dark". It’s a dining experience like no other that may indicate a sea change in the epicurean raison d’etre -- it also requires a dollop of courage and maybe a few extra napkins. Dining in the Dark doesn’t refer to romantic candlelight or a few emergency lights scattered through the hallways so you can see your own footfall -- it’s honest-to-goodness pitch blackness. So much for admiring the composition on your plate.

Commencing from a food trend that is, aptly, European, Opaque is all about the multisensory feast, which can be as unsettling as it is mind (if not eye) opening. The concept originated in 1999, when a blind minister who customarily blindfolded his dinner guests to give them an empathetic dining experience decided to open his own restaurant in an abandoned Zurich church. From its epicenter, the fad spread in spades, resulting in chic hangouts like unsicht-Bar (Invisible Bar) in Berlin and Dans le Noir (In the Black) in Paris. Opaque’s Berlin owner, Benjamin Uphues, eventually brought the trend stateside; now, Opaque has three U.S. locations, in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco. SF’s location, which opened in June, shares upstairs neighbor Indigo’s executive chef, Michael Whang, whose simple California cuisine aids in engaging all the senses.

Diners first walk into a dimly lit, narrow lounge area to select one of four available three-course meals (chicken, steak, fish, or vegetarian main course, with a salad and dessert) before heading into the abyss. The first few minutes were nerve-wracking and full of whispered questions that my husband and I were too bashful to ask. What if we have to go to the bathroom -- will leaving the room disrupt the experience? What happens if we knock something off the table? Do we need to turn off our cell phones (the answer is yes -- your phone’s display lights are strong enough to distract light-deprived eyes)?

Paranoiacs might find the pre-dining suspense an exercise in frustration (one that extends to buttering your bread), but it’s this babe-in-the-dark-woods anticipation that is so integral to the concept of multisensory dining. It ensures that you notice things that you otherwise wouldn’t: the comfortable temperature, the trip-hop mix that purrs over the speakers, and the necessity of conversation (even if it is just nervous blather at an overly voluble pitch).

Just after a shell-shocked couple stepped out into the stark light of the lounge, our waiter, Sean, was ready to take us to our table. Another thing to take note of: thankfully, you won’t be met by fumbling waiters in night goggles; all the servers are visually impaired or blind and lead you into one of two separate dining areas, which overall, have room for 40. Aside from making sure we got there in one piece (and don’t worry, you won’t be slaloming your way around chairs or stumbling on random steps), Sean graciously assured us there was really nothing to be antsy about.

According to Uphues, the menu periodically adjusts to the seasons, depending on what is available on the market. “We are trying to be simple with the menu in order not to mix flavors to the extent that they are not recognizable, and of course we have to make sure that the items are possible to eat in the dark,” he said. Aside from the three-course meal, our dinner included, between courses, an amuse-bouche from the chef (a risotto ball with balsamic reduction) and a crudite platter with three sauces (although, with all my floundering, I only got around to tasting one, which was fine by me: the crunch of celery is a reassuring sound, indeed).

While eating in the dark might prevail upon diners to throw their gourmet etiquette out the window, Sean was quick to point out where our salad plates, forks, napkins, and knives were placed. And although we found ourselves periodically groping for our silverware like a pair of teenagers at a movie theatre, the conventional placement was more than welcome.

Our salad was an ahi tuna tartare with mango, green onions, black sesame wonton crisps, and citrus aoli -- a highly refreshing starter, even if it was close to impossible to spear on a fork. However, the summery quality of the flavors didn’t really appeal to me, especially considering the frosty December air. I found myself desiring a salad with a little more heat -- perhaps a wintery concoction with shallots, mustard, radicchio, and fennel -- or even a soup, although that would have increased the spill quotient significantly.

By the time our entrees came, we were ready to rumble. (Sean had already mentioned that sometimes, diners will leave the majority of their dishes uneaten—presumably because of the mathematical complexity of balancing fork against food.) My husband chose the grilled free-range chicken breast over delicata squash risotto, broccolini, Portobello mushrooms, and a red wine reduction (“seasoned well, traditional but good,” he offered afterwards).

My desire for a wintery meal was met by my entrée: the grilled sterling salmon over celery root puree, sautéed blue lake green beans, and a parsley beurre blanc. Thankfully, the salmon was so buttery with the addition of the delectable beurre blanc that using a knife was practically unnecessary. Unfortunately, I filled myself up on the celery root (probably because of the easy-to-eat factor) before even realizing there were green beans on my plate. Since tactility becomes crucial to dining in the absence of vision, I found myself unabashedly feeling around the plate with my hands to make out the composition of the dish.

The dessert, espresso panna cotta with coconut crème anglaise and blueberries, was delightfully light and subtle, and comparatively easy to eat; although the panna cotta was slippery, the unified composition ensured that we typically came away with a spoonful of sweet something.

Past diners have argued that the experience of eating in the dark necessitates that you depend on all your underutilized senses, and that that’s the entire point of Opaque. After all, it’s not just the restaurant’s ambience that dictates how we judge what’s on our plates; often, the appearance of our dish may influence the way we taste it. While I was well aware of this argument before dining at Opaque, I concluded that it’s only partly true. After all, we depend on our vision not merely for information on how good the food will be, but on identifying what it is we are eating and using that awareness to experiment with our palates.

Dining at Opaque makes you especially aware of the subjectivity of the eating experience. While some diners may pay extra attention to the flavors and taste them more “clearly,” we were unable to do so in the order and manner that we might have liked. As my husband told me later, “Normally, I’d like to take a little nip of the risotto by itself, and then maybe match it with the mushrooms, and then perhaps I’d test out the broccolini and slowly integrate that tasting experience with the rest. But without the ability to see, I was just grasping at bites, and unable to customize that particular eating experience.”

This fact had a twofold effect: sometimes it provided for a schizophrenic eating experience that didn’t always work (tactility be damned—who wants to eat with their hands, anyway?); and it also made us more aware of our usual method of consuming a good meal, one that didn’t always encourage the leisurely pace that Opaque has mastered. Of course, the former effect could be mitigated with menus containing images of the dishes.

I would also have appreciated more experimentation and additional options and culinary risks with the menu; while Whang’s for-all-occasions food was pleasant enough, it hardly created pyrotechnics in my mouth and began to feel boring after the first few bites (an effect perhaps prompted by the anticipation of novelty). Just because you’re in the dark, it doesn’t mean culinary innovation shouldn’t be on the menu. Given that it’s fairly easy to get good eats in San Francisco without paying top dollar, Opaque’s steep $99 a pop might have been swallowed down more kindly with add-ons like fine wine pairings (as it stands, the wine menu is unacceptably scant), or personalized music choices (the generic electronica got to be tedious after the first hour).

Opaque’s reason for existing could easily be written off as a gimmick (one that Nervous Nellies and uber-foodies won’t appreciate), but to base the Dining in the Dark experience on the cuisine alone would be missing the point. There is a certain element of mystery that Opaque adds to the mix; even gabbing in the dark with your dining mate takes on a magical quality and sets idle fantasies in motion, making it a likely date spot. Reaching across the plate to grab some of his or her grub won’t be simple, but at the very least, it’s the kind of experience that promotes a non-judgmental, don’t-take-yourself-too-seriously approach to dining (nervous laughter, fork faux pas, and all)—which, unlike the food alone, could be something worth paying for.

Opaque “Dining in the Dark”
Hours: Thursday-Saturday 7:30-9:15 pm, reservations required
$$$
sf.darkdining.com