Eating meal in total darkness can be scary, but enlightening

The Baltimore Sun

MOSCOW -- In the blackness enveloping me, I can tell only that there's something squishy on my plate. Could it be a hard-boiled egg? Maybe it's cheese. No, it doesn't smell sharp enough to be cheese.

I taste it meekly, which doesn't help. Another bite; I still don't know what it is, though I do know this: I don't much care for it. This reminds me of a third-grade Halloween party where I donned a blindfold and thrust my hand into a bowl of peeled grapes I was told were eyeballs. Basically, I feel like I am eating eyeballs.

It's the dinner hour on a Monday evening in a central Moscow restaurant in the shadow of the Red Army Theater, and I'm sitting, in the dark, in a restaurant called In the Dark.

The dark: not the kind that descends on a bedroom after lights-out, or engulfs a forest at midnight at the time of the new moon. Fuzzy shapes and shadows define that kind of darkness.

This is utter blackness, where it's impossible to see your hand in front of your face, no matter how frantically you wave it. This is the true absence of light.

There are no windows, no candles. All digital watches, cellphones and cigarettes - anything that emits even the dimmest light - must be left in small lockers outside. There are a few other rules to eating in the dark, but they come down to this: Don't move about on your own. Whatever you need - a replacement fork for the one you clumsily knocked to the floor when you were trying to "find" it or safe passage into the light because you can't stand another minute of this absurdity - call out and ask for help. Your waitress will skillfully assist you in a darkness she knows well: She herself is legally blind. And for the duration of your dinner, she will be your eyes.

Moscow's experiment with dark-dining - and my own - comes after a growing number of cities have opened restaurants without lights. This one, V Temnote in Russian, is part of the Dans Le Noir chain, which has branches in Paris and London. The chain's motto, emblazoned on some of the staff's (predictably) black T-shirts, is attributed to William Shakespeare: "There is no darkness but ignorance."

In some places, dark-dining seems mostly a gimmick (I've read stories of waitstaff employing night-vision goggles). In others, including here, there is a social component: V Temnote provides jobs for the blind - my soft-voiced waitress, Lena, much prefers this to her previous work at a factory producing medical equipment - and raises awareness of the visually impaired. The restaurant's profits go to support blind causes, its owner, an ophthalmologist, says, including a traveling team of blind soccer players.

Of course, the restaurant is equally about what it means to be in the dark: Robbed of one sense, your body is supposed to push its others into overdrive.

And so, led inside through a maze of thick curtains by Lena, my hand on her right shoulder - am I gripping too hard? - I set out, with a few awkward shuffles of my feet. My hands explore the surface of the table, which seems unusually smooth. Here is my cloth napkin, my stainless steel fork, my glass. I place my index finger in it while pouring sparkling water so as not to pour too much.

I touch my husband Chris' leg to make sure he's still there. I listen for whatever there is to hear, which isn't much: the voice of a couple dining nearby and their laughter, probably because laughter is the easiest thing to do in this kind of dark. I eat whatever Lena brings me on my plate, including the squishy piece of meat, using my fingers to guide the food onto my invisible fork.

I'm not sure what I expected from this experience, or whether it turned out to be true. Afterward, I realize I have never paid much attention to the dark, in part, I suppose, because the world is so filled with light.

So I stop to consider the darkness - and its contradictions.

In a way, darkness is liberating: If I lick my plate, or stick out my tongue, because I can, no one will see.

Darkness is an equalizer. I don't have to worry about my hair being frizzy on a humid day, or wearing shoes without high heels - going without them is practically a prerequisite to being a woman in Moscow. London's dark restaurant holds mixers so people can meet without the preconceptions that come with sizing someone up physically. Some couples have used the darkness to stage the ultimate blind date, not revealing their faces until they emerged into the light.

But just as it is freeing, the darkness is disconcerting, and disorienting. Darkness allows the mind to race, or forces it to; in the dark, there is uncertainty, if not danger, conjured or not. Dark breaks connections and eliminates cues - a glance, a glance away - that tell us things about each other.

I, for one, feel accomplished after I emerge. But one of my dining companions, Alyona, looks ashen. She is so unsettled by the experience that she'll remove the room-darkening shades from her bedroom and sleep with the TV on.

A hostess plays a guessing game with us before we leave: What dishes did we think we had eaten?

I learn that the squishy meat had been foie gras. And that darkness can be enlightening.

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