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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On One of the Year's Darkest Days, We Thought We'd Have Dinner in the Dark. D'Oh!

Posted By on Tue, Dec 22, 2009 at 3:49 PM

click to enlarge Once over Opaque's threshhold, you can say goodbye to any normal feelings of control. - STEPHANIE IM
  • Stephanie Im
  • Once over Opaque's threshhold, you can say goodbye to any normal feelings of control.
We settled into our seat, threw a leg up on the banquet and got comfy. We felt around for the bread basket and stuck a finger in the butter, once by mistake, the second time because we wanted butter for our bread. We then made a series of funny faces at one another for good measure.

At any other establishment we would have earned looks of shocked horror and probably a straitjacket fitting. At Opaque, no one looked twice -- because there was nothing to see. Here, the dining room is dark beyond imagining. D'oh!

Originally conceived in Germany more than a decade ago, dining in the dark events took Europe by storm -- novelty dining, like reclining on the couches at Supperclub. Benjamin Uphues, who runs Opaque, follows a similar format here. When dark dining launched in San Francisco in June 2008, events sold out for three months straight. Dinners happen Weds.-Sat. in the Tenderloin, at 689 McAllister (at Franklin). Besides S.F., Opaque organizes dark dining nights in L.A. and San Diego, and helps groups like Foundation Fighting Blindness put on their own dark dining nights, like the one SFoodie contributor Tamara Palmer attended last spring at the Ritz-Carlton.

Saturday night, as we descended into the Opaque lair, we left all expectations behind. This meal would be all about experiencing in the moment. We were greeted in the dimly lit waiting area where we chose options from the prix-fixe menu for the evening. We then met Denise, our legally blind server (Opaque is the largest employer of the visually impaired in California), and were led, choo-choo style, into the pitch-black dining room.

It was dark. Really dark. Can't-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face dark. And for a split second we got nervous. Control freaks, beware: This might not be the place for you if you can't let go for a few hours.

However, as soon as we shuffled to our table and slid in, we tasted the freedom of disappearing. We admit being surprised at the rate at which we devolved ... and evolved. Can you imagine how liberating it is when you realize that no one can see you?

We ate with our hands, played with our food, and couldn't care less if we had something on our face. And then, we discovered a heightened sense of taste, touch, and sound.

The simple act of eating became a wildly fun game in which we never knew what to expect. A simple crudité of green beans, peppers (they tasted red), and cucumbers (slyly cut into wedges), was incredibly appetizing and fresh. The discovery of a third wonton crisp on the corner of my plate of ahi tuna tartare, diced apples, green onion, and wasabi aïoli brought a moment of pure delight, while the discovery of a steak knife beside a peppercorn-sauced beef tenderloin brought fear, and awe that Opaque would entrust a novice diner in the dark with such a potentially fatal object (and not tell her it was there).

The evening's highlights:

• Appreciating details: rose petals strewn on the tablecloth, stemless wine glasses, post-entrée finger bowls

• The grilled salmon and sweet, lavender-scented broccolini over Israeli couscous bathed in a basil beurre blanc

• Successfully retrieving a glass of wine from our server, Denise, by following the sound of her taps on the glass

• Listening to Denise dish about famous patrons and scandalous behavior (people, they are blind, not deaf)

• Not having to suck in our stomach after a big meal

Dining in the dark is an experience we'd recommend to the adventurous, the jaded, and the poorly mannered. It is pricey ($99 for a three-course dinner), but then again, it isn't likely to become anyone's regular dining spot. For a budget option, invest in some blindfolds and go nuts at home.

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Stephanie Hua

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