Tuesday, October 16, 2012

SPOILER Warning for Dark Table

Dark Table on Urbanspoon Before you go to Dark Table, you should really STOP ASKING QUESTIONS about the experience. Really. Here's why:
  • Have you ever asked a friend about a movie you're thinking of going to see? How would you feel if they gave away the ending to, say, a murder mystery?
Asking someone what they thought of their experience at Dark Table; or worse, asking detailed questions about what happens or how the dinner is conducted; or even worse still, asking how they coped in the dark -- ALL THIS CAN SPOIL YOUR EXPERIENCE.
I say "can spoil your experience" but it's probably closer to "will diminish your experience". Maybe you'll feel more competent and less anxious about dining at Dark Table, but think about it: This could be an adventure. A "safe", non-life-threatening, interesting adventure. It's one thing to go skydiving and want to know what to do once they throw you out of the plane. That's life-threatening and you need information on what happens and what to do so you don't kill yourself and your tandem diving partner. But Dark Table isn't going to get you killed. My advice is to know as little as possible and just adapt to what's thrown at you.

You're reading this on a food blog, so let's get at least the food part out of the way: For the price you pay, it's fairly good food at an OK price (basically $6 starter, $27 main, $6 dessert). Want superb food? Not here (or maybe not yet), and not for the price you pay. This isn't MARKET, people. The food is between good and good enough. This is a decent meal with the experience of being blind thrown in for free.

If you really want to risk ruining your experience at Dark Table, continue reading this blog post. Otherwise, here's the most you can safely know:
  • The menu is small and prix fixe (drinks are extra). If you have restrictions or allergies, tell them up front.
  • You can ask for a "surprise" main course. The surprise main (on the night I went) was not in the menu. It's not the same as random selection -- it's really a surprise. Because you're letting them figure it out, you can't really complain about what you get, and that's the risk here. If I were forced to base it on my one experience asking for the "surprise" main, I'd have to advise NOT to do it.
  • You can ask the hostess to put you down for a "surprise" drink even though that's not an option in the menu. You get a random selection from one of the mixed drinks (coffee, tea, or a simple juice would hardly be a surprise). I think they are nervous about doing this because drinks are an extra variable charge depending on what you get, compared to the surprise main course which is part of a fixed-price package.
  • There are two seatings. When I went just this past Sunday, they allocated two hours for the first seating, and the second seating was at 8pm. This was utterly unrealistic (although it can depend on how many people are on the first seating on the night you go). But you still have to be there on time because there's no telling when they will start. So, if you book yourself for the second seating on a busier night (say, Saturday), then be prepared to wait.
  • If you "need" alcohol, wait a month or so -- They don't have their license yet. If you can wait till after dinner, there's a pub down the street (Darby's Public House, a sports bar which can have too-loud live music in their smallish room) but otherwise the neighbourhood is pretty dead in the late evening.

SPOILER WARNING. This is your very last chance to turn back before I proceed to the rest of my review, which details my experience.
Still reading? Okay, here we go...

When you arrive, you convene outside in the heated patio area and receive a menu and complimentary, optional, blindfold. If you really don't know what you'll do with the blindfold after and would prefer not to accumulate unnecessary "stuff" or "souvenirs", you can politely give that back.
At this time, you are basically not allowed to go into the restaurant as that is mostly always utterly dark (I'll explain "mostly" later). If you need to use the restroom, someone would have to guide you there in the dark. So don't arrive there needing to go to the restroom. That'll just throw them off their schedule.

After you have had some time to look through the menu, the hostess will ask you for your selection. In this way, the kitchen knows how much of what to make. During dinner, they will announce what they have brought, and if you ordered it, you just let them know and they serve it to you.
TIP: The food will come up chopped up for you if applicable (e.g., steak), and into large chunks so each time you stab something with your fork you get a reasonable mouthful. So don't worry too much about figuring out cutting. But a lot of people ended up frustrated with using utensils and switched to using their hands. (And then, strangely, they felt the need to publicly confess it -- as if looking for others who did the same? There's a psych thesis in there somewhere.) If you are a neat freak or are wearing white and afraid of spills, choose something fairly easy to eat.

You enter the restaurant in table groups. For our group of 13, we were split into two groups of 6 and 7, and each group occupied one table. I was the very last person -- the 13th guest, as it were -- and squeezed in a corner of a table of 6. It was a bit tricky doing this in the dark as the spacing was meant for even numbers. Probably it was two tables put together and meant for two on each side and one at each end, for a total of 6.
TIP: If you want to take off your coat/jacket/whatever, do so before sitting down. They can check your umbrella or other small items if you are afraid of losing them in the dark.

The tables have a rubber mat that helps prevent plates from sliding around. At this point, I recommend you immediately check for napkin and cutlery, which should be in the usual place (napkin on your plate, fork and knife beside your plate). If you drop something, you are instructed not to go groping for it.
TIP: Mentally map out your surroundings and the size of your plate. When your drink comes, position it in front of you and above your plate. That way, there is less of a chance that your neighbour will accidentally grab it, especially if you are right-handed and they are left-handed.

You are started with drinks, then bread and butter. We had warm bagel chunks, each about the size of a dinner roll. Here is your chance to get coordinated with something that's hard to make a mess of.
TIP: With your fingers, benchmark a location on your cutlery (e.g., where the knife narrows into the blade) and get a feel for both the length of your cutlery and how hard you have to press something to sense it through your cutlery. If you are utterly unable to feel through your cutlery, you might want to forgo the frustration and eat with your hands.
TIP: You can ask for another napkin if, at this early stage, you get butter over your hands or otherwise make a mess.

After bread is done and the baskets are taken away, your starter is served. Our kale salad had large mushroom chunks which were tricky to identify as they were somewhat meat-like. Our server commented later that there was a tendency on the part of diners to imagine it to be whatever they thought it was (chicken?). Who knows what the heck else was in it.

TIP: Especially if the starter is a salad, ask for a spoon. It's a bit of a cheat, but honestly, it helps with salad if you are anal about cleaning your plate and not using your hands.
TIP: Are you finished? To check, you can "scan" your plate from side to side with your utensils: Position your spoon at one end, and sweep your plate with your fork toward your spoon. Do this down the length of your plate. If you are really unsure, you could gently feel around your plate with your fingers.

The choices for mains were:

  • beef tenderloin with peppercorn sauce, potatoes, vegetables
  • goat cheese and date stuffed chicken breast with orange gastrique, roasted potatoes, vegetables
  • fresh ravioli with jalapeño rosemary cream sauce
  • peppered garlic prawns with citrus risotto, seasonal vegetables (there were reports of 5 prawns to the plate)
  • Viennese style veal schnitzel, potatoes, seasonable vegetables
  • surprise

I opted for the "surprise" and got what was ultimately revealed to me as Chicken Kiev with potatoes and very large carrot?/beet? chunks. I may have mentioned before somewhere that I think chicken to be a tasteless meat that really needs to borrow flavour from seasoning. Definitely the case here. The chunks of (white?) chicken meat, divorced from the rest of the plate, were pretty bland and at first seemed like boring white fish.
And here was the main problem with dinner at Dark Table. I first suspected it during the salad starter, and the main really confirmed it: You really need to choose what you order carefully.
At a restaurant where you can see your food, whether you know it or not, you mentally map out a rough strategy for eating your food. Typically you will switch back and forth between main and sides. You definitely see this at a steakhouse where they practically beg you to order a side, not because they want more sales but because from experience, a monotonous chunk of meat becomes tiresome after a while if you don't break up the experience with different tastes in between -- i.e., take a nibble from your sides.
At Dark Table, if you can figure out where everything on your plate, you might be able to sort-of dine normally, but more likely it will be luck of the draw what you find and put in your mouth.

And more than just the order of what you are eating, there's also what you have with each bite. With a simple salad, every bite might be the same, but with something more complex like dessert, what you get with each bite can greatly influence your experience. For example, when you eat cheesecake, do you deconstruct it and have the crust separately? That's entirely possible to do accidentally when you can't see what you're doing. Maybe you'll cut it the wrong way and get mostly cheese or mostly crust.

Some people talk about your heightened senses savouring the food better, but I personally didn't find that. Or maybe I was too preoccupied with figuring out how to eat. I couldn't really smell much of anything off my main to figure it out or appreciate it more. And anyone who's gone to enough dinners with me will know I have an annoying habit of sniffing the first bites of my food before eating it.

I really wasn't sure what dessert was. Something creamy and lemony. Everyone got a different fruit on top, which threw people off a bit when they tried to share their experience. Here I admit I was preoccupied with something else: Not having a spoon.
The servers swore that there was a spoon on every plate, but I checked the rim and just inside for mine and it wasn't there. Ultimately, I would find that it had slid INTO my dessert. If that happens to you, don't panic. Just calmly check, and if necessary ask for a dessert spoon. You'll probably find it sooner or later.

However, this brings up another issue. If you're germophobic, are you going to freak out because fingers that have been God-knows-where have handled your spoon which has wholly landed inside your creamy dessert?

The washrooms are somewhat dimly lit with an orangish light. There's a rather high-tech toilet seat here that's worth a look if you aren't already familiar with such gizmos.
Sadly, the whole going-to-the-washroom procedure somewhat ruined the dark experience for me, because whenever they part the curtain to go into the washroom area, the light from that region suddenly rendered the dining space no longer perfectly dark. (Same with the coming-and-going from the kitchen by staff, but much less so). Your immediate surroundings were still pitch dark, but suddenly it's a different experience of knowing distance/dimensions. While being in perfect darkness, there's a strange claustrophobia from not knowing just what is around you and how far away it is to anything. I counted that sensory deprivation to be key to the experience, and being seated at an angle to see the occasional bursts of light rather detracted from that.

After dinner, when you are ready, the servers lead you to a curtained-off casher area. Here, they have a counter set up at the restaurant's bar (which is lit, but blocked off by black curtains). They ask you whether you had two or three courses, and what drink you had, if any. There's a curious amount of trust here, which I hadn't seen since Argo Cafe.

Overall, this experience would be tricky to recreate at home without nightvision gear or a coordinated team, so if you're at all curious, I do recommend trying Dark Table. I heard good comments about the food from everyone who chose their main, so it's quite a safe choice for dinner if you are focussed on value for your money.

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