I sunk my spoon into the dessert, scooped deeply and pulled up a mouthful of whipped cream. Hmm. Abandoning the spoon, I gingerly touched the surface of the dessert with my fingers and felt a wedge of warm cake, a sticky puddle of sauce that would turn out to be caramel, and a hazelnut. As none of my tablemates could possibly see me, I proceeded to eat the dessert with my fingers.
Every month through June, Atlantic Station’s “Dialog in the Dark” exhibition stages “Dining in the Dark” — a full evening meal, served and eaten in pitch darkness. Blind and visually impaired guides serve food prepared by a noted Atlanta chef to a maximum 16 guests who have gathered for the experience. With everything factored in, it’s a good deal for a memorable meal. The $102.60 admission fee ($183.60 for a couple) includes a tour of the exhibit (a $25.92 value), a three- or four-course meal with tip, and all the water you can drink. (Any other beverages are BYOB.)
The night I visit, chef Gerry Klaskala of Aria restaurant in Buckhead is helming a rudimentary cooking station by the exhibit’s entrance. “This is the kitchen,” he says with a laugh, showing his set-up of butane burners and an electric heating plate. Even with this handicap, he manages to send out an admirable four-course menu.
Before dining, I experience the exhibit with my fellow blind gastronauts. Armed with walking sticks, we tap the ground to establish terra firma and reach out to feel our way through mock-ups of various real-world places. These include a supermarket and a “boat” that rocks in water as our guide leads us on an imaginary trip to a faraway land. With the constant frottage and inadvertent gropings, the whole experience feels a bit like being on a play date with TSA agents, but it is fun. At one point I think I am touching nautical netting but, alas, it is some poor woman’s dreadlocks.
The tour ends in a small cafe where usually visitors sit to chat with their guides and order a soft drink. Instead, we get a small hors d’oeuvre — in our case a thin grilled sandwich of Gruyère and mustard — to nosh on as our guides answer questions about their blindness.
We exit the darkness of the exhibit for a quick bathroom break, and are soon led back into the lightless cafe in small groups of five or six. Our group is led to a U-shaped booth and, as luck has it, I end up sitting next to Nicole — the young woman whose hair I had mistakenly fondled. She and her friend, Mara, had seen something about dining in the dark on a food television show and jumped at the opportunity to experience it in Atlanta.
We share the table with another couple and make small talk until our sight-impaired waitress, Margaret, introduces herself and hands us each a glass of water and a cloth napkin rolled around utensils. Margaret’s pitcher has been outfitted with a device that plays a tinny version of “It’s a Small World” to indicate she has nearly filled the glass. Hers and the other waiters’ talking pitchers join the piped-in smooth jazz music in a strange cacophony.
For the first course, chef Klaskala sends out a salad of chilled last-of-the-season Georgia white shrimp with chunks of apple, radish, daikon and watermelon — each a fun burst of sweetness when you manage to spear it or pick it up. After poking around the plate with a fork, convinced I had discovered everything, I ran my fingers over the surface and — score! — another shrimp.
Following this course comes a bowl of farfalle pasta with a pheasant and shiitake mushroom bolognese sauce. For a main course, the chef devises a smart dish that plays to the situation. Three pieces of tenderloin — pork, beef and veal — are matched with three purees — sweet potato, truffled potato and carrot — as identifiers. Frankly, the small chunks of meat turn leathery cold quickly and taste similar, but the purees are scoopworthy.
During the meal, you may find yourself becoming hyper-aware of the smells around you of both the food and anything else. I heard one woman exclaim, “I’ve never been so aware of the smell of my hair cream!”
The international tours of the “Dialog in the Dark” exhibit have inspired sightless dining before — notably at Zurich’s Blindekuh (“Blind Cow”), a restaurant started by Dialog veterans. I’ve had the fortune to dine at Blindekuh, and it’s a somewhat different experience. There, you choose your dinner from a menu before entering the dining room and, once there, well-seasoned servers bustle around serving wine and clearing plates.
Here, the meal feels like more of a discovery for guests and servers. But isn’t that what it’s all about?
“Dining in the Dark” tickets available at 1-866-866-8265 or www.dialogtickets.com. The next dinner will be Jan. 20 with chef Jason Hill of Atlanta’s Wisteria restaurant.