Eating Blind – Noir. Dining in the Dark
When eating, “taste” is top of my list for enjoying a meal. I’m usually willing to try most things, but if it doesn’t taste good, I’m not going to repeat the experience. But it’s easy to forget how important the other four senses are until we challenge them. Smell plays a huge part in my enjoyment of food. There’s nothing like the aroma of freshly baked bread or a steak sizzling on the hotplate to get the taste buds working overtime. “Sight”, sets up expectations. If something looks good, then it will get me interested. If it looks unappetizing, my brain will try to convince me it will be unpleasant. Touch, or more accurately, mouthfeel, can be a game changer. And while sound is probably the least activated sense when eating, there is the sizzle, crackle and pop of individual dishes that increases the allure.
So what would you do if you turned up for dinner and someone took away one of your senses completely? And how would you feel if that sense was sight? What if they completely and totally took away your ability to see what you were being served? Would it make you nervous? Would it have all your other senses on alert? Would it make you feel uncomfortable and uneasy? OR….would it add to the feeling of adventure? Could it actually make the eating experience more fulfilling? Well, just last week I was presented with that very situation. A visit to one of Saigon’s newest and more innovative restaurants had me contemplating the complexity of the whole eating experience because of that very challenge. Noir. Dining in the Dark Saigon gives a whole new perspective on exploring your food.
I’d heard about a new restaurant in town, where you ate in the dark. I have to admit that the concept didn’t immediately appeal to me. I’m clumsy enough when it comes to food. The thought of trying to feed myself in the dark conjured up images of dastardly dribbles down my front and an embarrassingly soiled tablecloth. However, when the opportunity arose to dine at Noir in District 1, I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? I’m not sure I want answers to that question. I have an active enough imagination. But, I also have a sense of adventure and after asking around the reports on the food and overall experience were overwhelmingly good.
I’d read all the excellent reviews, read the website and talked with others who’d been. But I was still quite nervous when I turned up at the stylish building, located down a lane of Hai Ba Trung in District 1. As I walked through the entrance, I noticed the dim lighting that only just illuminated the tastefully decorated reception area. Was it just atmosphere or was it part of the acclimatisation process?
The staff were extremely attentive. All had perfect English and a somewhat calming demeanour. I suspect that many of their guests were just a little bit nervous at this point. Retaining an outward air of calm, I gratefully accepted an alcoholic welcome drink. (Non-alcoholic versions are available if you prefer). Asian, Western and vegetarian menus are available. As the menu was totally in braille, I had no idea what I was choosing. However, I’m a big believer in eating local specialities where possible so selected the Asian version. I love wine, but I’m not particularly good knowledgeable in the area, so I picked one of the “mystery wine” options from the comprehensive menu. The promise of perfectly matched wines for both my starter and the main course seemed a good choice.
Once settled with my drink, the waiter offered up a challenge to get me used to the idea of being blind for the rest of the evening. He proffered a blackout mask in one hand and a wooden puzzle in the other. A quick task to remind oneself that you are not totally useless when you can’t see. After performing rather admirably at the task, I had a renewed sense of bravado that I wouldn’t completely make an ass of myself. Bring it on.
Before entering the restaurant, you have to surrender anything that can make light to your personal locker. Phones, torches, lighters and even your watch are securely locked away. They obviously don’t take chances with guests taking a sneaky look. It would, after all, spoil the atmosphere somewhat. And, the thought of a modern restaurant without smartphones was quite attractive and just a little bit unnerving since I was dining alone.
I met my waiter Nghia, who was, unsurprisingly, blind. Both hands on his shoulders I was led through what felt like a labyrinth of thick curtains that rapidly turned my world into total darkness. When I say “total” I mean absolutely, completely, can’t see your hand in front of your face, dark. I have to confess there was a slight quickening of the pulse at this stage, and all other four senses, especially hearing, went on high alert.
Nghia guided me to my chair and introduced me to the table. My cutlery and napkin were on my right-hand side. My wine glass just above them. I was able to place my napkin on my lap without anything clattering to the floor or smashing and felt a small hint of achievement.
When Nghia was happy, I wasn’t about to freak out and was feeling comfortable he excused himself and silently departed to bring me my wine and the starters. Utterly alone, I sat in the darkness, ears straining for the least little sound. I had arrived very early in the evening, so there were no other diners at that stage. After tentatively feeling my way around the table, I found myself fixated on a tiny red light on the ceiling. I suppose it was the smoke detector but at the time it seemed like my only tentative link to the outside world.
Nghia returned and announced the arrival of my wine and starter. A large, slotted, wooden platter contained five individual bowls so there’s minimal chance of breakage and spillage. Very practical leaving only the challenge of keeping the food off myself and finding my mouth.
I began tentatively, using two hands to hold each bowl, in turn, carefully lifting it to my lips. From touch, I could tell if something was hot or cold. A big sniff of the food revealed a little more of what I was about to taste. By taking small portions, chewing carefully and rolling the food in my mouth, I tried to work out exactly what I was eating. Each of the five dishes had a distinct smell, feel and taste and yet, while I could get close to naming what I was eating, the exact makeup escaped me on all but one occasion. I might add that all were excellent and certainly posed no unpleasant surprises.
Nghia returned and with a cheeky smile (which I can only imagine from the tone of his voice because I couldn’t see him of course) asked me what I thought I had eaten. I made a valiant attempt, but the truth is I only got things about 40% right. Unspoken challenge accepted; I would try harder with the main courses. But even with careful contemplation I only got about 40% of those correct and same with the dessert.
In between eating Nghia and I chatted about his role at the restaurant and what both he, and I thought about the concept. It felt strange talking to someone I couldn’t see and whom I had only glimpsed briefly. The conversation made me realise I was participating in much more than just a dinner in the dark. In Vietnam, the opportunities for those with disabilities are few and far between. Up til meeting the staff at Noir, the only blind people I’d met were lottery ticket sellers, blind masseurs and karaoke performers dragging a boom box around the streets at night. Nghi proudly told me that this was THE BEST job for a blind person possible. He sounded so proud of himself and the fact that he could help others experience and understand the plight of the blind while they enjoyed the exceptional food.
And excellent food it was. Despite the fact that I made a very poor showing at identifying what I was eating, it was all excellent. The textures and tastes were expertly combined to provide a very satisfying eating experience. The mystery wines; one white, one red; paired very well with the food. And, another big bonus, for those of you who feel uncomfortable with dining alone….nobody can see you. There are no wondering glances, pitying looks or shady pick-up lines. You are completely incognito.
As the meal went on, the restaurant began to fill up. There were at least two larger groups nearby my table. Alone, I had plenty of opportunities to listen to their reaction. Nervous chatter and bravado at first until all settled into the new experience. It was an interesting exercise in imagining who they were and what they looked like. The second group bought a small child who, understandably, started off by being terrified and wanting to leave ASAP. Full credit to the parents though in talking him through his fears and calming him down. In no time at all he was having the time of his life.
When I exited, I was greeted by Germ and Tu, the owners. After quizzing them about their background, I gained a fuller appreciation of why the whole experience was so unique. Both are veterans in the luxury side of hospitality and Noir is the culmination of many years of designing top shelf experiences for customers. They are both passionate about good food, excellent service and creating a unique experience for their guests. They are equally passionate about providing opportunities for the visually impaired of Saigon.
Germ gave me a full overview of what I’d eaten with the assistance of beautiful colour pictures on his IPAD. Thinking back on what I had eaten, everything now made sense. Each and every dish had been carefully thought through to provide a unique combination of tastes and textures. Many of the dishes were familiar Vietnamese favourites but served with a twist.
The overall experience was one that I won’t forget in a hurry. Yes, it was a little nerve-racking and yes, you do need to put quite a bit of trust in the chef and your server for the night. It’s not something I would do every day, but I certainly would take others who enjoyed good food and were looking for a different night out. And, I’ve already recommended it to friends who are active in exploring Saigon’s dining scene. The food is excellent, as is the service. The added twist of being totally deprived of your sight delivers a unique experience you won’t find anywhere else in town.
Lane (Hem) 178 Hai Ba Trung District 1. HCMC . Vietnam
- Lunch: 11:30 – 15:00
- Dinner: 17:00 – 23:00 (last seating at 21:30)
Please call us: +84 8 6263 2525 (between 09:00 to 23:00 everyday)
or mobile number +84 9 8663 2525
or email us at email@example.com
Photo Credits: I didn’t take a camera on the evening so all pictures are courtesy of Noir. Dining in The Dark Saigon.
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