Truffle pops at Culinary Capers' Dining in the Dark event. © Claudia Kwan 2011.
It’s probably no secret: I love a challenge. That, combined with a hearty love of good food, had me seriously intrigued by the prospect of Dining in the Dark.
Put on by catering firm Culinary Capers, it was an experiment with the types of events offered by Tourism Vancouver during Dine Out Vancouver. The inspiration came from similar events in New York, with a simple premise: to eat your way through eight courses of food prepared by chef de cuisine Jonathan Chovancek while blindfolded.
I wasn’t nervous exactly, but I was entirely unsure of what to expect — something I haven’t really felt for sometime when it comes to dining out. Knowing my propensity to be Spilly McPoursalot, I did a little preplanning by wearing dark-coloured clothing, and drove off with B to Culinary Capers’ location near Granville Island.
There was an excited buzz of conversation inside the lobby as the approximately 50 guests mingled, sipping on cocktails and nibbling on hors d’oeuvres. With stone-ground mustard on the crab cakes, and champagne poached pear served atop a Parmesan crisp, it was already clear texture would play a big part in the experience.
We were taken inside the large kitchen where Culinary Capers normally does its food prep; three long tables had been beautifully decorated with winter vegetables and a sage green runner, with dim lighting strategically placed in spots around the room.
We were given a rundown of how things would work: servers would tap the left shoulder to announce they were setting something down, or tap on the right to clear. Then, blindfolds on, it was time to begin.
I’m used to stumbling around half-blind when I don’t have my contacts in, so I used some time-tested tricks to orient myself: slowly feeling in front of me to identify water glass, wine glass, knife, fork, and plate, and listening carefully to identify the different voices around me. Some of the people I had met before, which made it a little easier. Others, like Debra Lykkemark and Michael Harries of Culinary Capers, a lovely couple near them, and a garrulous woman sitting across from me, were new acquaintances.
I detected some fruitiness in the white wine we were drinking, so guessed that it might be a Gewurtztraminer — I should have remembered all of the pairings were from Laughing Stock and that they don’t make a Gewurtz. It was a pinot gris.
I dove right in with both hands to feel the elements of the dish, and that helped me partially figure out what things were. The meaty prawn tempura was easy to figure out, but I guessed that it was salmon roe instead of steelhead roe, and I couldn’t identify a slightly bitter taste. It was later revealed that the roe had been cured in sake.
The deconstructed salad should have been easy, but Chovancek was muddying up the waters a little bit by introducing elements of molecular gastronomy — I knew that the cheese had been dehydrated into almost a powder form, but couldn’t tell that it was originally goat cheese. The grilled mango and chili-dusted cashews were especially delicious.
In the next dish, the scallop was easy to identify by taste and texture — fortunately everything was arriving in pre-cut bite size bits, so we didn’t have to put ourselves in danger using knives. I even got the citrus element of the yuzu and the lemongrass scenting everything, but I totally blew it on the BBQ’d pineapple — I would have sworn that it was lychee that had been compressed to be firmer and sweeter than normal. Oops.
Double oops: at one point I missed my mouth with the spoon and hit my cheek instead. Oh well, since everyone else was blindfolded it didn’t matter too much, right?
Then we were given a ‘present’, a fragrant bundle of parchment paper that I could smell three paces before the server had set it down. Fumbling it open gently revealed sablefish in a creamy veloute. The taste I couldn’t place was the salted lemon, but at least I correctly guessed the wine as being syrah.
I wouldn’t say that having the blindfolds on enhanced my other senses; instead it forced me to just pay closer attention. I was hearing the timbre of individual voices, trying to be a good guest by waiting diligently for pauses in conversation to make my own observations, and swiveling my head from left to right to catch what was going on. I noticed that the formerly garrulous woman sitting across from me had voiced a few complaints, eventually gone very quiet, and then begun crying. She decided to leave — I’m not entirely certain why, but I do know that if someone has an issue with claustrophobia/darkness, they probably would NOT enjoy this type of dinner. The remaining guests at our table tried to cover the awkwardness with some jokes, and readily got the evening back on track.
Then it was the last course, some incredibly tender red meat with a distinctive slight metallic taste. I guessed lamb and duck before puzzling out that it was venison cooked sous-vide, which explained the tenderness. The beets also had a distinctive texture, but I couldn’t taste much black pepper in the gastrique.
The flourless chocolate cake smelled heavenly, especially once burnt orange caramel sauce was added on top. Then it was blindfolds off to eat the edible glitter-covered chocolate truffles seen on the top, which still wasn’t enough to avoid having glitter all over my face.
Service was delightfully attentive, much more so than in an average restaurant. Apparently others enjoyed the intimate atmosphere — I was told there were makeout sessions breaking out everywhere! (Psst… the SERVERS DON’T HAVE BLINDFOLDS ON, PEEPS.)
Asked to give some feedback, I told the Culinary Capers team that I had enjoyed it very much, but had some suggestions as well.
1. Give guests the option of putting on an apron or protective garment over their clothes to guard against spills. Not everyone has previous klutz training like I do.
2. Instead of having the big reveal — with a slide show and the chef explaining each dish — saved all the way to the end, have people take the blindfold off between courses. It was a little difficult to remember by the end which elements had puzzled me most.
3. I thought pricing was fair, considering the amount and quality of the food: $120 for eight courses, $150 including wine pairing. BUT, I would be more likely to come back more often if it was perhaps sized down slightly to, for example, $100 for six courses, additional wine pairing for another $20 or so.
With all that having been said, I do think it was an innovative approach to adding excitement to Vancouver’s dining scene. I’d like to see it happen again, and for others to take a similar approach of ingenuity.