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Dining in the dark

Never in my life have I been so intimidated by a goat cheese salad.

It was elegant, all right: a bouquet of baby greens tucked into a baked-apple vase. A scattering of dried cranberries and candied pecans around the disk of goat cheese. But now that I think about it, the whole table looked like pretty dangerous. There were three knives, three forks, two spoons, three wine glasses, a coffee cup and saucer.

How would I navigate it in the pitch black?

That was the challenge at the Foundation Fighting Blindness's Dining in the Dark fundraiser last night at the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner. The concept isn't new. Dark dining originated in Europe in 1999 when the Swiss organization Blind-Liecht Foundation launched the Blind Cow in Zurich. The world's first dark restaurant let diners experience what it is like for blind and visually impaired people to eat – in total blackness.

The concept has since been expanded throughout Europe and the United States. Event company Opaque organizes dark dining nights regularly in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego and helps others such as Foundation Fighting Blindness create dark dining nights around the country. This was the first in the Washington area.

Having failed to find some gullible publication to send me to Europe years ago, I jumped at the chance to give it a try.

The lights were on when we entered the dining room and for the first course, the obstacle-like goat cheese salad. While they were on, my fellow diners began to work out strategies. Carrie Graves, the event organizer and a old pro at dark dining, moved all her extra cutlery and glasses out of the way. Jamie Toombs, a banker, made sure the bottle of red wine was within easy grasp. Even our server had a plan. Lucia Ruvolo, who was blinded by congenital glaucoma and had never waited tables before, said she was just going to pretend she was in New York and hustle her way through it.

At about 8 p.m, organizers asked that all cell phones be turned off. The lights would be off for about 30 minutes while we ate our main course. The emcee counted down from 10. Boom. Blackness.

Our brave server Lucia had been given two tables of 10, a heavy load for anyone who had never worked as a server before. So we waited 15 minutes for our dinners. In the meantime, we tried to drink wine. Carrie's trick: Put your finger inside the glass while you pour to make sure you don't overfill the glass. Jamie's: Hold the glass in the air so you can feel when it is heavy with wine. I passed my glass to Jamie.

Lucia found her way to our table, using ropes set up along the perimeter. There was a tab on the rope in front of each table so all the server had to do, in addition to carrying the plates, was count the tabs to know which table she was in front of. The whole process was seemingly effortless, with the exception of the confusion caused when the vegan at our table was presented something that was "definitely meat – and not good meat."

"Maybe it's vegan meat?" I ventured helpfully.

"I'll just try to eat the vegetables," he said.

The meat was chicken. That was obvious, even in the dark. But eating it was tricky. I was determined to use my fork and knife, but I had no idea what I was cutting, and when I brought the fork to my mouth I either had a bite too big, too small or of something I definitely wasn't expecting.

Ribbons of … were they parsnips? Someone said they were eating potatoes. But what I was tasting certainly wasn't potatoes. And yet, everyone was tasting potatoes. Where were mine? Did I get any?

Goodbye, knife and fork. Turns out fingers are the best utensil.

Using my hands, what was for dinner became at least somewhat clearer. Those long, skinny things felt like green beans. I tasted one. Yep, green beans. And, oh, there were those potatoes, way up at 12 o'clock on the plate. Scalloped and cut into what I imagined was an elegant diamond shape. But what were those round ribbons? The taste was familiar, but I struggled to identify it. Not turnips. Not parsnips.

"Are they beets?" Jamie asked?

"You got it," Carrie answered.

"Oh," said someone across the table. "I hate beets. Or, at least, I thought I did."

A moment later, the lights came on. Everyone squinted at each other and then at their food. My plate looked like that of a 5-year-old who had not liked her meal. (Though, actually, I had eaten all my vegetables.)

My table mates chatted as they more politely finished their meals. Everyone was consciously grateful to be able to see: for dinner, every day and because there was tiramisu for dessert.

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  December 2, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
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Comments

While I understand the reasoning behind this, I don't want to pay that much money for something where I'm dressed lovely and could end up covered in my meal like a child.

Posted by: sigmagrrl | December 8, 2009 12:13 PM | Report abuse

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