Saturday, July 12, 2008

Blind Sexy Nausea

In line with the adage "less is more", San Francisco restaurant Opaque takes something away (your ability to see) to provide something more. Without your eyes, dining at Opaque is an eating adventure--a scary, sexy, nauseating, intimate, primal, communal eating adventure.

Entering Black
After selecting from the menu in the well-lit bar of an adjacent restaurant, our party of six wandered through a narrow basement lobby and was greeted by our blind server, Mocha. She promptly led us, single file, into a dark maze of black velvet with a low ceiling. Not only are there no lights, there is no light! Nothing. Blackness. Walking in the blackness, each person gripping the left shoulder of the person in front, brought on new uncertain feelings for everyone: some thought the air felt thick, others saw flashes of light. But we all felt, as one veteran sailor described it, a little seasick.

Getting Intimate
Mocha seated us one by one by taking our hand. Given the situation, the somewhat intimate act of holding hands with the waiter becomes a necessity. Mocha's hands were a little rough, but warm and reassuring. Once at my setting, I started feeling around like a...blind man...and found my napkin and fingered my neighbor's bread plate. I touched hands with my neighbor while passing glasses of ice water. As I found a spot for my glass, I realized I had settled about 6 inches to the left of my place setting and at an awkward angle from the table. I squared myself and listened as Mocha taught us how to pour wine.

Appreciating Food
Dining in the dark means learning how to eat all over again. How do you pour wine without overfilling the glass? How about buttering your bread? Cutting your steak? As the food started rolling in, we did what humans do, adjust and figure it out. There was the whipped butter so airy we had no idea how much or if it was going on the knife, the crudités with three sauces we dipped in too deeply or not enough and then the first real course--for me, a seared ahi salad.

I never thought of a salad as complex, but with elusive romaine leaves, rings of fried onions, and slices of semi-cooked fish, it was complicated. I would dig my fork on the pile and shovel in whatever came up to my mouth. Sometimes I got nothing; other times just a big wad of fried onions instead of a meticulously selected mixture of ingredients. In the end, we all had to start using our hands. Eating with your hands is invigorating, freeing and fun! Though I didn't have steak for my main course, there must be something primal about eating a juicy steak with your hands.

Darkness Brings Freedom
On the way to the restaurant, we joked about picking our noses and removing clothing in the shroud of darkness, but once you're there, with no one looking, there is a certain freedom. My back has been hurting so I put my elbows on the table with my head resting in hands for a while. Later I stretched my back in a way that would've driven my wife nuts if she saw me. At some point, the female diner to my right announced, "I finally feel in control." So I instinctively squeezed her thigh to (I guess) lessen her control--not something I would have done under normal circumstances. Later two of the three couples in our party admitted to some semi-naughty behavior in the dark, and I think the third couple was just being shy.

Communal Revelry
There was no dinner conversation except for conversation about dinner. No one asked about things at work or the latest problems with the kids. We all just talked about eating--constantly and loudly. In fact, everyone in the restaurant was talking at the top of their lungs, to the point where it was hard to hear Mocha's instructions for the next course. Then it was somebody's birthday and in seconds the entire restaurant was singing "happy birthday" in unison. When does that happen at a $99 per plate dining facility? As the evening rolled on, the restaurant started emptying out, and it got much quieter. Someone was curious how many tables were left, so with summer camp like enthusiasm, organized a count off--only three tables left. Again, how often do you interact that much with your fellow diners?

I haven't really spoken about the quality of the food, but by and large everyone at my party was impressed with their meals. Of course, we couldn't see presentation, but the ingredients were fresh, the meats not overcooked and there was something for everyone. Was it to die for food, never-tasted-anything-like-it stuff? Not really. But that didn't matter much.