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Friday, 3 March 2006
Dining in the dark

In an earlier post I stated that the German language does not lend itself to humour. This is a generalisation, of course, but it is probably fair to say that it does not lend itself to puns. You could probably put this latter generalisation to the test, by counting the number of homonyms. But sticking, for now, with gut feeling, it is likely that the Teutonic punster is a rare bird.

Like all rules, this is proved by an exception, which, as it concerned food, a subject close to my heart, etched itself on my memory. Four years ago a restaurant opened in Cologne. The restaurant was called Unsicht-Bar, which is a half decent pun on the word "unsichtbar", meaning "invisible" and "Bar", meaning - er - bar. Here it is:

From Time Europe Magazine:

The dark is good for all kinds of things, like love, trysts or even murder. Now, however, another nocturnal activity can be added to the list: fine dining. In Cologne's trendy Unsicht-Bar (in German, an untranslatable pun on the words invisible and bar), light is absolutely verboten, and patrons gather to wine and dine in utter darkness.

With the complete loss of vision — and the resulting heightening of the other four senses — an evening at Germany's first-ever dark restaurant is an extraordinary culinary adventure. "You smell better, you are more receptive to differences in texture, consistency and temperature," says Unsicht-Bar manager and founder Axel Rudolph, 46, who opened the eatery in May 2001. "It's a holistic experience." As taste buds work overtime to discover fresh nuances in well-known flavors, even simple, everyday foods like potatoes or plain yogurt morph into nouvelle cuisine.

Before descending into the Stygian darkness of the dining room proper, where flashlights and even luminous watches and mobile phones are prohibited, customers choose their fare in the restaurant's brightly lit, cheerfully decorated entrance hall. To add to the spirit of mystery, individual dishes are not clearly identified as, say, goat cheese on a tomato beignet. Instead, enigmatic descriptions such as "a flying visit to an Alpine cheese factory" make the diners even more curious about what's soon to hit their palettes. It's all very reminiscent of the exotic dinner parties planned by the Futurists, the early 20th century avant-garde group, who concocted multi-sensory meals such as the "tactile dinner party" during which guests might feast in the dark on Polyrhythmic Salad (undressed lettuce leaves, dates and grapes) and Magic Food (small bowls filled with balls of caramel-coated items such as candied fruits, bits of raw meat, mashed banana, chocolate or pepper).

The Unsicht-Bar's waiters play a particularly important role — all of them are either visually handicapped or completely blind, and they not only serve the meals but also act as guides to the stumbling diners....

Cologne's Unsicht-Bar does more than just fire the imagination and stimulate the senses. After one or two hours in complete darkness, patrons come to appreciate the skills of the blind waiters, who move around the room with perfect ease. A trip to Unsicht-Bar thus sheds light on a strange sensual world in which the sighted people are the ones who are blind.

Now it seems that dining in the dark has come to London. However, we have imported neither the pun, nor the enthusiasm. From The Telegraph:

My dining companions were Jill, Saffron, Sophie and Simon. All seemed exceptionally nice though I had no idea what they looked like. I accidentally patted Sophie on the head trying to find where she was sitting and she returned the compliment by poking me in the eye....

You cannot signal your waiter, but calling his name brings him back to your side. In his enthusiasm Paul plonked down a plate in front of me on the edge of the table. I just caught it before it landed on my lap.

Fumbling with knives and forks and fingers, we scooped what food there was into our mouths. At first I thought my starter was pasta before deciding it was smoked salmon. For the main course I was convinced I was eating moussaka with lamb or beef mince. Later I discovered it was fish.

The dessert was easy, I thought, pears in a raspberry juice. It turned out to be apples with ice cream. Our taste buds may have been aroused, but they were confused. After an hour and a half, we were desperate to return to the light.

Outside, opinions were divided. Claire Hill, 28, a marketing manager from Islington, north London, said: "I enjoyed it, though it won't be replacing my local Italian. I have no idea what I ate. We had a laugh when we tried to pass the bread. You would never think it could be so difficult."

Another guest was not so enthusiastic. He said: "It was interesting but I am not so sure enjoyable. You have to ask why do people want to experience being blind?"

A meal at Dans Le Noir, which serves mainly French food, costs £37 per person.

That's a lot considering all the money the restaurant is saving on electricity. No, I'll pass. I like to see what I'm eating. After all, what you thought was a sausage might turn out to be something quite different.

Posted on 03/03/2006 7:36 AM by Mary Jackson
3 Mar 2006
Send an emailMarisol Seibold
One has to admire the business sense of whoever thought this up-- not only are they saving on electricity, but they're making good money serving up some pretty mundane fare, like the potatoes and plain yogurt that were mentioned above.

But there are so many reasons to want to see what you are eating in a restaurant, particularly to be sure it's cooked properly. Then there's the general messiness of not being able to see where things are, not to mention all those inebriated patrons blindly wielding forks and knives.