Anxiety is not something I normally experience before a meal but sitting in the lounge of O.Noir is mildly stressful. The two hours that stretch out before us will mark my first blind dinner and not knowing what to expect makes my palms sweat and my knees jitter.
The lounge isn't so scary. It's lit, which helps, but the odd room also distracts from the darkness that waits. It's a mix of fresh paint-the brail alphabet adorns one wall-and new Berber carpet tangles with the previous tenant's steak
house leftovers; brass railings, oak paneling and English hunting prints. But it's the unknown that's so nerve wracking.
Will anyone talk in the dining room? What happens when I need to go to the bathroom? Will eating blind give me the nose of a bloodhound and the taste buds of my adolescence?
We place our order in the lounge and meet our waitress Tracy, who's not only blind but really our life line to the lit world. If I freak out inside the dining room, I'll need to call out to her to get me out of there.
With a hand on her shoulder and in single file she escorts us into one of the three dining rooms that branch out from the lounge. A thick blackout curtain captures any glimpse of light in the vestibule between it and the door, preventing light from spilling in. And once the door shuts we're encased in darkness. No shapes, no cracks of light, no distant focus. Nothing.
She leads us slowly to our table and waits as we fumble in the dark to feel our chairs. I put my hand on my neighbour, feel his jacket and apologize then rein my arm in to find my own. I'm glad he can't see me.
In front of us she says is a placemat with a napkin and set of cutlery on our right.
"Feel further up and there's a small bread plate with a packet of butter," says Tracy.
Before leaving to retrieve our wine from the bar she also instructs us to call out her name if we need anything-like a bathroom break or if a sudden panic attack strikes. We hear her repeat the word "careful" as she makes her way across the room, signaling to the other servers that she's on the move.
It's difficult to know how many other guests are sitting around us and even how big the room is. The volume level is descent though and I feel no need to whisper.
Tracy returns moments later, first with our wine. I place it on my left and keep my hand on the base so I know where it is-and so I don't knock it over. I wonder if they'd give me a spilly cup if I asked...
Next she arrives with bread.
"I'm holding a basket. Reach out with your hand. There. Now reach in and take a roll."
Or so I think. Using a knife proves difficult. Instead I use my thumbs to pull apart my roll and manage to scoop out a small amount of butter with my knife, most of which ends up on my finger.
Shipped in from a Montreal pÃ¢tisserie, the warm square rolls are just the slightest bit sour, crisp on the outside and gorgeously soft inside-a delicious reward and the highlight of our meal.
The concise menu features four apps and five mains, with the option to order a surprise for any or all of the courses. I'm all for a focused menu but of the starters two are mushroom and parmesan dishes, while the remaining two are grilled octopus and grilled calamari. Sure, I'm temporarily blind but a little variety would be welcome.
Tracy arrives out of nowhere and deposits a grilled Portobello in front of me and octopus to my companion. I locate my fork and absently stab at my plate, hoping to catch something on the tines. I do! And am rewarded with a pre-cut piece of meaty mushroom, dressed in a tangy balsamic glaze and adorned with a thick shaving of Parmigiano Reggiano.
I suggest trading a bite for a bite so my friend reaches across the table and puts a tender chunk of octopus on my plate. Scented with lime and dressed in a simple olive oil vinaigrette it wins the first round. I miss my friend's plate completely and leave a piece of mushroom on the table for her-which she tells me after searching her plate in vain.
Like most mishaps at O.Noir it goes unnoticed. In fact you could do almost anything in that dining room without fear of prying eyes.
You will use your fingers at one point to feel the food on your plate. You may even eat with your hands. If you were brave enough you could take your clothes off and dine in the buff. I know I kept mine on but I did spend much of the meal with my eyes closed. It was more comfortable than straining to focus on the nothingness.
O.Noir's food is respectable but dining there is more about the experience than the meal-and if you can cope with a couple hours of darkness, completely worth it.
Thin, yet tender pieces of breaded veal cutlet, subtly tossed in lemon and served with sautÃ©ed peppers and asparagus is tasty but the buttery potatoes are better.
Sundried tomato risotto could be creamier and feels a little one-dimensional in flavour but comes adorned with about seven plump shrimp.
Desserts are also shipped in from the same Montreal bakery but aren't on the same level as the bread; Viennese chocolate layer cake is moist, chocolaty and elevated to a winning position with a scoop of the best vanilla ice cream I've tasted in years-ultra creamy and deeply scented with Madagascar vanilla.
I was more disappointed in my senses than anything else. I've done blind tastings before and expected to detect subtle nuances in the dishes, pulling out each flavour component layer by layer and rebuilding in my head what the chef created in the kitchen. Instead the simple act of locating the food on my plate was so laborious and consuming I couldn't muster anymore focus.
O.Noir is not a place to linger over coffee or cognac. Once the last forkful is gone it's time to go. With hands on shoulders Tracy leads us into the lounge, and into the light. We blink repeatedly, adjusting not only our eyes but our perspective.
For an industry that relies so much on visuals (location, dÃ©cor, atmosphere, presentation) it's jarring when it is absent. At O.Noir it's more than just dining in the dark, it's really about experiencing blindness, if only for a couple hours. I don't think it makes the food taste better but it does sweeten the meal.