If you’ve ever seen Gordon Ramsay blindfold his chefs on Hell’s Kitchen
, then you know how difficult it is to identify foods through taste alone. The chef’s palates may be their livelihood, but the failure rate is surprising.
So when I get a chance to dine at Montréal’s O.NOIR with a group of wine pros, I’m more than excited. The lights, you see, are out; the waitstaff is blind.
The idea is when you eat without sight, your remaining senses are heightened to savor the smell, taste and texture of food. But O.NOIR wants to do more than engage your senses. After two hours in complete darkness with no flashlights, matches, cell phones, cigarette lighters or even luminous watches, customers understand a bit more about blindness.
The concept began with Jorge Spielmann, a sightless pastor in Zurich, who blindfolds his home dinner guests so they might share his eating experience. This led to the opening of the first “dining in the dark” restaurant, Blindekuh (German for blind cow), to provide jobs for the blind (who are 70 percent unemployed) while teaching the sighted about the dark world of their servers.
There are now similar restaurants all around the world. Our coterie in Montreal is a bit nervous, so first we swing by the Sarah Bernhardt Absinthe Bar. We’re transported back to the Art Deco era and end up well-lubricated by the formerly banned anise-flavored spirit. No hallucinations so far; we’ll save that for later.
As we enter O.NOIR, which is on the ground floor beneath an erotic club called Octopussy, the group has no idea of the disorienting experience yet to come. We place our belongings in lockers, order three courses from the bar, and then we meet Sophie. The tall, winsome, strawberry blonde is our blind server/guide. “Line up single file, and place your left hand on the shoulder in front of you,” she purrs. We lurch through a black velvet curtain maze and plunge into total darkness. Stumbling forward, we’re told to turn, feel for our chairs, and sit. So far, so good.
My hands explore: two forks, one knife, and a rubberized placement. My menu consists of three “surprise” courses. “Over your left shoulder.” I manage to grasp my plate and wine and successfully navigate them to the table below; this will be standard procedure for the entire evening.
My first course is soft and unidentifiable; it’s overwhelmed by raw shallots. I eat it with my hands. Turns out it’s under-seasoned beef tartare with great crostini. Next come two meat logs with goo. I identify the sweet potato-carrot purée, but the anonymous meat just tastes deep-fried; it’s later revealed as pork.
The atmosphere in the room is one of cacophonous sound, like a stereotypical insane asylum. Some anxious diners come and go. My dessert is cake with pastry cream and a mysterious sweet fruit gelée; I would never guess it is strawberry. The experience is fun, but humbling; I blame lack of proper seasoning.
The reviews from our group are mixed. Some are jazzed. Many feel a disconnection with the food and hate eating with their hands. One is inconsolable to the point of tears. Others are more mellow; they successfully navigate cutting a delicious beef filet with fork and knife through a feel, stab, tap and cut system.
No one, however, is unchanged, as Sophie finally leads us to exit happily into the light.
O.Noir, 1631 Ste. Catherine St. West, Montreal. $34 for a two-course meal, $41 for a three-course meal. 514-937-9727, onoir.com
More culinary highlights from my gastronomic road trip in and south of Old Montreal:
Le Marché de la Villette
, Old Montreal The perfect mashup of butcher and bistro, where I had one of the greatest foie gras and charcuterie platters of my life. marche-villette.com
Ateliers et Saveurs
, Old Montreal The new generation of cooking classes — friendly, affordable and open to all. You touch, you taste, you discuss, you share and then you eat. It’s a fun group experience and all the recipes follow via email. ateliersetsaveurs.com
Cidrerie Michel Jodoin & Coteau Rougemont
Forty-five minutes east of Montreal in Rougemont, two serious-minded vintners are making high-quality products. The méthode champenoise ciders of Michel Jodoin and the surprisingly exquisite wines of Coteau Rougemont, made from the cold-weather grapes Frontenac Noir and Marquette, are worth a visit. micheljodoin.ca/en
Zoe’s Lounge, Fairmont Chateau Laurier
, Ottawa Located next door to Canada’s Parliament Hill, the landmark Château Laurier hotel is a magnificent limestone edifice with turrets and masonry reminiscent of a Loire Valley château. In Zoé’s Lounge, guests escape into a world of timeless décor and afternoon tea. If you’re interested in traveling vicariously from Florida, download the free Fairmont Château Laurier Walking Tour app. fairmont.com/laurier-ottawa
, CN Tower, Toronto Located in Toronto’s iconic CN tower, 360 features surprisingly good food combined with a magnificent revolving view of Toronto more than 1,151 feet below. cntower.ca/en-ca/360-restaurant
, Niagara-on-the-Lake One of the world’s great producers of Icewine, a highly concentrated dessert wine made by harvesting grapes naturally frozen on the vine at 14°F in December-January. The Icewine tasting at the vineyard is thrilling. inniskillin.com
Weinkeller Restaurant and Winery
, Niagara Falls Incorporating a winery inside a restaurant, the Weinkeller draws a casually upscale crowd. It features a prix fixe menu crafted from fresh, local suppliers. And it’s just a few minutes walk from the falls in the heart of the entertainment district. weinkeller.ca