Being able to see what you eat is something that we all take for granted. We rely on our sight to inform us about dining in a number of ways, from the actual colour, expected texture and physical form of our food, and thus whether we even like the look of it, to the pure logistics of eating, such as simply navigating the food from the plate to our mouths. Taking the time to really savour other aspects of a dish, such as smell and flavour, can perhaps fall down the list of priorities in our hyper-visual world. Having the chance to indulge the other senses, therefore, is always going to prove to be an interesting experience.
In celebration of (or is actually mourning?!) one of our vets and her husband making the move back home to South Africa, after several years here in the UAE, a bunch of us headed off to the Fairmont Hotel in Dubai to partake in the Noire dining experience. In essence: dining in the dark. Due to an initial issue with our booking we had time to initially hang by the very nice bar enjoying our complimentary drinks and anticipating the forthcoming and very novel experience, as not one of us had ever intentionally dined in the dark before. What would we be eating? Would we like it? What would the atmosphere be like? A whole set of questions were just waiting to be answered as we were eventually briefed, including instructions to remove any watches that might ‘glow in the dark’ to the somewhat obvious-when-told order to switch off any phones. The only source of light there would be visible to us in the dining room would be the red light on top of each of the waiter and waitresses’ night vision goggles. In fact, being met by our hosts for the evening decked out in black and adorned with what is effectively military equipment in the form of night vision goggles, was a surreal experience in and of itself.
We were led in small groups into the dining room itself in a strange conga-esque procession, with the diner at the front placing their hands on the shoulders of our waiter and everyone else following with their hands on the person in front’s shoulders. Shuffling into the pitch black felt alien and the first instinct was to wonder where the light switch was and search urgently for any source of light. The only glimmer of light was a very faint and occasional line of white creeping in through and between the thick black curtains that kept us in total darkness and separate from the world of light outside.
Seated at our tables, the first thing to do was establish our bearings, ascertain what was in front of us – cutlery, a small bread plate, water and wine glasses, with both water and wine present, and our fellow diners sat beside and in front of us. One of the most bizarre aspects of being in the dark was finding plates and food seemingly magically appear and disappear before us. Where once there was an empty plate, now there was bread, and vice versa when it came to dishes disappearing once finished with.
The most noticeable feature of human interaction in a totally dark environment is how much louder we all become. It is as if we live by the mantra of “if you can’t see me then you’re going to hear me,” as the conversation volume certainly ratcheted up several levels, with some of the diners virtually shouting at times. I wondered whether some were simply trying to employ sonar techniques to visualise their neighbours! The other human trait that comes out in the dark is our propensity for mischief when the opportunity presents. Whether it be stealthily stealing our neighbours’ wine or creeping up behind them and making physical contact with them when they don’t expect it, the experience was very playful and a lot of fun. Quite what we must have looked like to our hosts, however, is anyone’s guess but I imagine ridiculous is probably fairly close. Especially when we felt it would be a great laugh to initiate a Mexican wave! Can you imagine the sight?! It must have been the most mal-coordinated effort ever seen in the history of waves!
As for the food itself, it was undoubtedly delicious, as we started with a small spoon of a fried noodle dish, before enjoying a biriyani, which was one of the tastiest dishes I have had for a very long time. The flavours certainly jump out at you much more when you can’t see what it is you’re eating and if it were not for the fact that I was so hungry and thus devoured by fare pretty swiftly, it would have been a real treat to truly savour and appreciate the aroma, texture and taste of each dish. The main was a very tasty Korean dish, with marinaded grilled beef, mushrooms and a delicious rice base, whilst the dessert involved rice pudding, roasted carrot(!) and, again, was lovely. It was somewhat of a shame, however, that there was no attention paid to the drinks, as we simply had a standard glass of pretty average white wine to start and then a small glass of similarly unimpressive red to accompany the beef dish. Pairing each dish with a complimentary drink might have helped really elevate the entire experience and would be something that I would suggest as an improvement. The other suggestion I would make is to increase the amount of each dish served. I was not the only one who left the dining room still hungry and when the opportunity to finish off the chef’s presentation dishes was on offer I took it, which seemed like a bit of a poor way to have to end the evening as I should have left the actual dining experience feeling satisfied.
Finishing the evening with the chance to don a set of the goggles and venture back into look at where we were dining, I was surprised to see that the room was significantly smaller than I imagined. Again, thoughts of what we must have all looked like did make me chuckle. Overall, a fun and certainly novel experience, but at 325 AED a head, I would have expected a little more food. After all, it’s not as if they’re spending that money on lighting the place!