Thursday, December 04, 2008

Dining in the Dark: an Opaque experience in SF

This was my meal from Opaque. As you can see, things got a little messy, thus necessitating the finger-bowl of water to wash up seen at the right. But rest assured, I didn't actually consume those two giant glasses of wine you see there all by myself...


Yes, I'm being snarky. A few weeks ago, before Thanksgiving, My Omnivore, Ms. and Mr. Art Attack and I went to try Opaque, a new restaurant hidden under Indigo in the Crimson Lounge.

You got your Tactile Dome, you have your Audium, and now there's dining in the dark at Opaque.

I figure that at least this time I have an excuse for needing to use my fingers all the time to eat my risotto and for winding up wearing half my meal.

Among the four of us, we covered the entire menu. Our usual practice of sharing round the table was a wee bit of a challenge, but amazingly, we did manage some exchanges. Good thing we couldn't see how the table looked afterwards...

Here were the menu items (all of them are from the menu at Indigo where Michael Whang is executive chef):
  • Little Gem Lettuce Salad with Early Girl Tomatoes, Toasted Almonds, and a Fresh Lime-Parmesan Vinaigrette
  • Ahi Tuna Tartare with, Mango, Green Onions, Black Sesame Wonton Crisps, and Citrus Aioli
  • Grilled Free-Range Chicken Breast, Roasted Butternut Squash, Israeli Cous Cous, Sautéed Spinach, with a Herbed Butter
  • Grilled Sterling Salmon over Basmati Rice Pilaf with Crimini Mushrooms, Black Bean Coulis, and Nectarine Salad Garnish
  • Grilled Beef Tenderloin with Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Arugula-Cherry Tomato Salad, & a Red Wine Sauce
  • Orecchiette Pasta with Sun Dried Tomatoes, Creamy Basil Pesto and Sautéed Radicchio
  • Mango Panna Cotta, Coconut Crème Anglaise, Basil Syrup
  • Bittersweet Chocolate Cake, Strawberries in Mint Sugar, Vanilla Whipped Cream
I have some comments about each, but first let me discuss the experience.

You arrive at the door (to the right of the Indigo entrance) and settle in the tiny hallway vestibule to peruse the menu and order your choices in light. All join hands and a server (all their servers are visually impaired, giving them a practical advantage in the dining room) then takes your group into the dining room, weaving through the tables and past other diners where your first panic is how to find a chair to sit in. Just getting to the table safely feels like a victory.

Which brings me to my first point. Dining at Opaque is in fact not a little bit disorienting -- and not the thing you want to take your Auntie Madge and Uncle Phil when they visit San Francisco, unless of course Auntie and Uncle specifically ask to dine in the dark. Number one, it's an adventure, and more than one person, including one in our party has expressed a feeling of extreme discomfort at not being able to see. That's part of the experience, of course, and part of the point -- you are being taken out of your comfort zone in a big way, and will need to rely on a whole new skill set just to sit at the table.

Number two, you are going to need to go with dining companions who are as game as you are. It's going to take a village to get fed here, and you have to rely on good communications to, say, find the bread basket.

Third, and not least, the food is not that good. If Auntie Madge and Uncle Phil have been hearing about how San Francisco is a gourmet paradise, this is NOT the way to introduce them to California cuisine. It just don't taste that great.

Now let me just say here, I enjoyed the experience, I think it was worthwhile as a concept. So I'm a little reluctant to dog the place--dining in the dark is a fascinating idea. But if you're going to serve food in this town, and tell people that their senses will be heightened by lack of sight, you'd better serve something worth smelling, touching, and most of all tasting. That the food comes from Indigo's kitchen does not bode well for the current state of that restaurant, which used to be a favorite of mine.

Opaque has only been open for a few months and it looks like the menu hasn't changed since it started. Most of the items are exactly the same as a few of the dishes on the Indigo menu -- I am curious enough to want to go back to Indigo and try the same dishes to see if they're that bad when I can see them.

Since we had four diners, we tried everything on the list. My starter was billed as the Ahi Tuna Tartare with Mango, Green Onions, Black Sesame Wonton Crisps, and Citrus Aioli. More easily consumed with the fingers than the fork, much of it wound up on the tablecloth I think. The tuna seemed fresh, but if there was any green onion on the plate, I'd be shocked. I may not have the sharpest nose in the bunch, but I'd certainly be able to pick out green onions. The sesame wonton crisp was certainly crunchy and a welcome piece of manageable food with some texture, but I also seemed to have missed the mango. I couldn't help thinking though, how would I know? How could you tell if you weren't being served the thing you ostensibly ordered up in the vestibule?

They offered a plate of crudites with three dips, a curry aioli, what seemed like green goddess dressing and one other I couldn't identify. All perfectly acceptable, though not stellar. Frankly at that time I remember thinking that if they were going to put curry into something I wished it could be more fragrant. However, much of what I smelled all night was a Renuzit air freshener cone, which I found in the dark sitting on the ledge next to my booth. Now, I like freshness as much as the next person, but the thing was right next to me drowning out everything else like someone drenched in cheap perfume--and frankly I'd rather have smelled the food. Indigo, for instance, offers sides of truffled fries. Why not put that on the menu? Or would it clash with the scent of "Ocean Breeze?"

Or maybe not.

My entree of Grilled Free-Range Chicken Breast, Roasted Butternut Squash, Israeli Cous Cous, Sautéed Spinach, with a Herbed Butter was alright. Chicken was a bit dry-- possibly overcooked, which made me wonder if there was any herbed butter present-- but also oddly left with large pockets of unrendered fat that I had to keep pulling off the meat. Of course, the couscous was more than a bit of a challenge. I finally was reduced to putting my head over the plate and quickly shovelling before I could drop anything.

Ms. Art Attack had what was listed as Orecchiette Pasta with Sun Dried Tomatoes, Creamy Basil Pesto and Sautéed Radicchio. She decidedly did not have orecchiette though, which are easily identifiable as the "little ear" shell shapes. She was given penne instead, but said it was tasty enough.

Mr. Art Attack had the Grilled Sterling Salmon over Basmati Rice Pilaf with Crimini Mushrooms, Black Bean Coulis, and Nectarine Salad Garnish. I didn't find any nectarines at all, but the salmon seemed acceptable, if nothing special. It was probably not enough as a portion since he readily accepted my offer of half a chicken, which I couldn't finish.

My Omnivore's Grilled Beef Tenderloin, sadly, was far too overdone. He had a hard time cutting the stuff and the meat was rather flavorless. He brought up another interesting point though. As a diabetic, he controls his portions fairly carefully -- but of course, when we're out at a restaurant, he does this by sight. It was almost impossible though to figure how much you had eaten (versus how much you had dropped), making it more than a bit of a challenge for the diabetic.

In fact you had little control over portioning throughout. We had ordered two bottles of wine, which is usual for us. What is also usual is that I drink about one half glass of wine. But because it was dine-in-the-dark, they served each of us a glass pre-filled with one fourth of a bottle, and then came round with another set of glasses filled with one fourth of the second bottle. There was no way I could drink all that, and I passed much of my wine across the table to others.

For dessert we tried two each of the Mango Panna Cotta, Coconut Crème Anglaise, Basil Syrup and Bittersweet Chocolate Cake, Strawberries in Mint Sugar, Vanilla Whipped Cream. Mine was decidedly not a mango panna cotta. It was a perfectly nice panna cotta, but perhaps buttermilk? Definitely no mango and no coconut. Bittersweet chocolate cake was not bad.

On the plus side, the service was really well done. Katie, who helped us all evening long was a thoroughly reassuring pro, who seemed imperturbable in any situation. She even heard Mr. Art Attack's off-handed remark that he was left-handed, and oriented his coffee cup with the handle at "9 o'clock" so it would be convenient for him.

Lastly, I have to comment on the atmosphere. When we first arrived there seemed to be a few people already dining, and talking in low voices, which was perfectly pleasant. midway through the meal though, a party of some 6 people (celebrating a birthday perhaps?) arrived and proceeded to take over the soundspace to thoroughly irritating effect. Over at Yelp, many have commented about loud boisterous parties seemingly taking over the room. Maybe the restaurant hires loud parties to come each night to add to the "out of your comfort zone" psychology of the experience. After years working the Tactile Dome, I've been in the dark enough to know that voices don't have to be close to be overwhelming and really, really, REALLLLLY, honest-to-freaking-Murgatroyd annoying.

So would I recommend it? In a word, No.

I love the idea, and it engendered some good conversation about what life is like for those who have lost their sight, how dependent they are on the frankness and communication skills of others. Ms. art Attack has dined at another similar restaurant in Europe and had a terrific time, which I could totally imagine. But for this particular restaurant, I felt like there were just too many missteps. And the price point of $99 per person-- yes, you read that right, $99 per person prix fixe, not including wine-- was just far too high for the quality of food that you get. I don't mind paying a little extra for the specialized experience, but for the amount of the final bill, we all could have gone up the street to Zuni Cafe and had fragrant fantastic chicken from a wood-fired oven, fabulous rabbit, a terrific Caesar salad, housemade charcuterie, a cheese plate with pairings, wine, slam-bang margaritas and still had change left over.

Hmmm, there's an idea. If you're thinking you'd like to try dining without seeing the food, maybe just head over to Zuni instead, and tie a scarf around your eyes.

Full disclosure: One of Ms. Art Attack's students works at Dine in the Dark, although she wasn't one of the three servers on the evening we visited. She did stop by though to say hello and brought her boyfriend over to meet us. Of course, I will never recognize either of them if I ever run into them again.


cindym said...

how interesting! the menu sounds a little dated (wonton crisps!) but still, what an experience. i do often think about how much visual recognition contributes to your enjoyment of foods. could i tell apple from pear from quince flavors? probably not. aren't there always flavor tests on top chef/hells kitchen with blindfolds?
i dunno. i'd probably have a panic attach in the dark and have to be led out. ;)

ME said...

It was seriously weird. You have to take a few deep breaths in the dark to calm down early on (which is when I discovered the Renuzit) I thought about that for a bit, because I don't have the best palate in the world. Fortunately Eric does-- that was the only way we could be sure that we got the wine we ordered--He got a Syrah and a Zin so we could be sure of it.

YEsterday on Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares they had a guy who was an "executive chef" who identified a piece of chicken as "beef" and a piece of NY Strip as "pork." Now that's bad.

freediabetesinfo said...

you can live normal life with diabetes , all you need to do is follow doctor's recommendations and fight with it darely

ME said...

That's true that you can have a normal life with diabetes-- I'm happy to say my Omnivore (as one might guess from his name) is pretty omnivorous. Portion control is key though, and it was interesting how much of that "control" process with your eyes.

The interesting thing to me is how well my Omnivore keeps his blood sugars in check, while still enjoying all the fabulous foods that the Bay Area has to offer.

Anonymous said...

I have one Question please

Who are started this concept and license?
Thank you

ME said...

Hi! I don't know about license, but according to this article in Newsweek, the idea started in Zurich at Blindekuh.