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Jul 4, 2009 11:31 AM

I have chocolate under my fingernails -- A report on O Noir

Because I was really interested in what it would be like, I went to O Noir.

When you arrive, you spend some time in the lit bar with the menus and a drink, deciding on your order. Then, when your party is ready and your orders are taken, you move into the darkened dining room -- single file, lined up with your left hand on the left shoulder of the person in front of you, parading behind your server, who leads you on a twisty path through tables and chairs that I'd really have expected to be a little further apart under the circumstances.

Once in the dining room, you're served water, bread, appetizers, entrees, desserts and tea or coffee, all in the pitch dark. There are occasional bursts of light when someone doesn't properly observe the two door system and light leaks through from the kitchen, and on the night I was there when the jerk at the next table kept busting out his cell phone, but on the whole it really is pitch dark in there, and you really can't see anything -- not even your hand in front of your face.

It makes eating a messy process, so it's fortunate that no one can see you as you dip your fingers in sauces or pick up lettuce with your hands because you can't find it with your fork.

But on to what is, for the purposes of this board, if not for the purposes of the restaurant itself, imporant: food.

It's really not great. It would be awesome to have the kind of densely layered dishes where you would savor the flavours in every bite and appreciate the lack of distraction from your other senses, but that's just not how it is. I'd describe the food itself as kind of upscale wedding banquet -- it's not something you'd bitch about necessarily, but it was pretty generic.

When ordering, you have a choice between ordering one of several named dishes or asking for the 'surprise' dish. Opting to hedge my bets, I chose the surprise appetizer, ordered my main, and then not being a fan of chocolate desserts, chose the surprise dessert instead of one of the two chocolate desserts they had on offer (the only other named dessert was sorbet).

First up was bread, served very hot, with a little plastic thing of butter. I'd guess it was a ciabatta roll from the shape and texture. I ended up with butter all over my fingers from trying to butter it with my knife and failing.

Next up came appetizers. I smelled, poked and prodded at mine with my hands, trying to determine what the sort of rubbery, greasy feeling sheet was, exactly, then picked up a couple of bits and pieces that were strew over it. The first bit was raw onion, and the second was a caper. By this time you've probably figured out that the food was smoked salmon, but I didn't realize that until I took a bite of it. Under the smoked salmon were some completely undressed greens. The smoked salmon was fine.

Next came some of our mains, which were delivered pretty much auction style, as in casual chain restaurant. "Who had the X?" was answered with a constant stream of patter to guide the server in your direction. "I did, over here, at the end of the table, I think, by Karla." I had ordered the shrimp with tomato risotto. The shrimp was cooked nicely, not rubbery at all, which was nice, but in a fairly generic sauce. The risotto was, near as I can tell, not risotto. There were some saucy bits of rice and some unsauced bits of rice, and in a real risotto, that couldn't possible have happened. There were also some vegetables on the side -- an asparagus spear (nicely cooked), a mushroom (fine, I guess) and a bit of zucchini (overcooked, oversalted).

Finally after the rest of our table ate, came our desserts. It came as a bit of a surprise to me, that on a menu that already offered two chocolate desserts, the surprise dessert was also chocolate. In this case, a chocolate mousse cake with a ganache top on it. It was pretty much exactly what it sounds like, and unfortunately precisely the kind of overly rich and sweet dessert I'd been hoping to avoid by not ordering one of the chocolate desserts on the menu. There was nothing wrong with it -- as chocolate mousse cakes go, it was one, alright, and I can't exactly fault them for it being that, since I did order the surprise, but is it too much to ask for something that's not chocolate and not the sorbet on a dessert menu? A nice lemon tart? Some totally generic creme brulee? I should have ordered the sorbet.

About the service: With a concept like this, there's really only two possibilities for the service. It might be so perfectly timed and rehearsed that everything goes down flawlessly and people are impressed as hell, or it might be a trainwreck. Sadly, it was the latter.

We were promised that the drinks we started in the bar would be delivered to us at our tables since we couldn't carry them ourselves, given that we'd be busy clutching the shoulder of the person in front of us. And they were -- but not until we were well into eating our entrees. And then, the first drink I was given was not my diet coke, but someone else's rye and coke. The waitress took it back and said she'd give it to him. Uh, really, after I've been drinking out of the glass? The second drink she gave me was clearly not mine from the bar area, either, as I hadn't had a slice of lemon with my drink -- though I think in that particular case, they probably just poured me a new soda rather than giving me someone else's drink, as the glass was basically full when they brought it. We never got any kind of refills on any of our drinks or on our water, so it was a remarkably dry meal, especially considering it was 3 hours long.

That, mind you, could have been to try to keep people from going to the bathroom, since that was a hassle in and of itself. When people asked about it before going in, they were told it would be no big deal and to just ask their server who would quickly guide them out and bring them back, but the reality was a trip to bathroom seemed to require 2 or 3 requests to go, and then seemed to take another 10 minutes to get them to bring you back.

There was also a pretty massive screw up somewhere with our orders, in that half of our table ate, and then it wasn't until 10 minutes or so after we finished that they brought the entrees for the other half of our table, despite repeated assurances in the meantime that they were checking up on them.

Finally, they offered around coffee and tea, and I ordered tea. It came in a mug, with sugar already in, and bag still in, and that mug was unbelievably hot, but there was nothing to do but grab it by the bowl since the server was holding the handle. I can still see the red marks it left on the pads of my fingers. If they can't find a way to serve tea safely -- and since you're grabbing for it from somewhere near your right shoulder, I can certainly imagine an awful lot of those cups of teas ending up in people's laps, or dumped all over the people next to you -- then they shouldn't serve it at all.

They were also playing music at a pretty high volume into what sounded like a pretty cavernous, empty, banquet hall style room, which meant the conversations were loud, and got louder as time passed, as everyone tried to talk over each other, and compensate for not being seen by definitely being heard. Even if the food had been of a quality suitable for savoring, you wouldn't have found yourself savoring it undistracted.

As an experience, O Noir was definitely interesting and even a lot of fun -- we got the whole restaurant to sing Happy Birthday to nobody in particular, discussed the likelihood that there were secret flashers in the room, and, yes, ended up with chocolate under our fingernails from feeling around our plates, trying to find our food -- and I would actually recommend people try it for the experience. But go as a tourist, rather than as a chowhound, because the food is not the attraction. And maybe give them a few weeks to rehearse the kinks out of their service.

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  1. A very interesting review! I appreciate the thoroughness to this writeup, as this is one of the restaurants I have heard about often, but not really with much detail besides dining in the dark and that they employ blind staff. One thing to note is that this is the Toronto branch of a 3yr-old Montreal restaurant. I believe O Noir Toronto opened only recently in late June, so perhaps these kinks in the service will indeed be worked out... However, maybe they are simply trying to meet their goal of "teaching the sighted about the sightless world", and not looking to break new culinary grounds.

    I am actually very surprised that the menu seems to be quite plain. I imagined richly layered dishes with a variety of tastes, textures... and even smells! Exotic, and experimental. All the more appreciated with mild sensory deprivation. For what it's worth, it seems one could reproduce a bit of the experience and not even lose any of the "surprise" by preparing a meal at home and hitting the lights before digging in. Cover the windows, tuck in the bib beforehand, and maybe put some extra cutlery on the table in the event you drop a fork. You wouldn't have to talk over the other tables, and someone could pick up some creme brulee in advance.

    Some people have an initial apprehension to trying a new food based on how something looks and feels (texture). Or from knowing what it is: made from an animal's organs, unconventional seafood, etc. It seems like O Noir's concept could actually take advantage of these facts by realizing that someone "daring" enough to go try their restaurant would probably be alright trying some foods that actually do surprise them. I am not a very experienced gourmand, but in the realm of chinese food I can already think of two items that could be exploited in new ways: bitter melon (sparingly, in a savoury dish), and fresh (and stinky) durian as part of a dessert. If anyone can think of particularily visually UNappealing foods that taste heavenly, those would be perfect too.

    I recently saw a video about something like cherry cobbler being made with olives instead. Just the idea makes my roommate shudder in revulsion, but I know that the process probably makes for a delicious and decidely un-olive-y dessert. However, I know that if she sampled it without knowing what it was beforehand, learning about the unconventional ingredient after would be a fun surprise, and probably would loosen up her views about food.

    That said... serving certain items to people under cover of darkness and mystery might get into tricky territory. Last year I tried viande chevaline (horse meat) because it is available at some local grocers here in Montreal. None of my friends dare try it--though it's half the price of ground beef, lower in fat, and I swear... much tastier! O Noir might not raise any eyebrows in Quebec serving horse meat patties (only revealing the ingredient after), but I'm sure some people--including some chowhounds--would be outraged, even if (or moreso) if they found it delicious. However, this might be the only way some people would touch a fork of it.

    O Noir Montreal's menu looks to be the same as what is described in this review of the Toronto branch. So, it sounds like on the culinary front they are satisfactorily generic, but not fully exploring their unique selling point. Jacquilynne's final advice is to "go as a tourist". I'll admit that the place still does have some draw for me for the experience alone, but here's hope they make it enticing for chowhounds and the curious alike.

    1 Reply
    1. re: iWoo

      I agree that there is a lost opportunity here - like Jacquilynne, I would love the experience if they actually used the opportunity to expose people to levels of taste they might not notice if distracted by attractive plating or a particularly fetching dining companion - but I have to argue with some of your potential ingredients. Durian...the thing that turns people off is not appearance, but smell. If you were deprived of sight, this aversion would (if anything) be enhanced. Without sight, it takes a much greater leap to put something that smells awful (be it a fruit, a cheese, whatever) in your mouth than it would if you could see it in all it's luscious, glistening, gooey glory. As far as horse meat goes - I don't know anyone that objects to eating horse on visual grounds. The objection is moral, and has to do with methods of slaughter and the sensibilities of the animal. Sure, if you lie about what it is, they may eat it and enjoy it, but it has nothing to do with what it looks like - if you tell them it's beef, or elk, or venison, they will believe you until they actually eat it and it doesn't taste quite right. The only visual objection comes from seeing the word "horse" on the menu/butcher sign, and you won't get around that at O Noir, unless it is the "surprise" course, which in this case I would find rather irresponsible, given the moral baggage of the food.

      That being said, it seems that, regardless of the phrasing of the press release, the true intention of the restaurant is not to open our senses to what we may be missing by being distracted by sight, but rather to open our minds to the difficulties of everyday life when you no longer have one of your senses. In my mind, this only works if the serving staff is able to operate completely normally - until they get used to working in the dark as if there were light, it's not a true representation of anything. A blind person may not be able to find their Diet Coke in mid-air, but they are probably able to get their hands on it after the waiter places it where it belongs on the table. I don't generally have my beverages dangled over my shoulder...do you? Most people with disabilities do not have the advantage of being constantly surrounded by people with the exact same disability, after all.

      1. re: jayt90

        It's at the corner of Church & Charles under the Town Suites hotel.

      2. Great - and hilarious - review. I mean, better you than me - I'm intrigued by the idea but the whole thing sounds more like Lord Stanley's Feast or one of those kinds of "concept restaurants where the food is secondary. The idea of mixed up drinks and burnt fingers and stumbling on your way to the washroom, it's just a bit too much. And speaking of which, what was your bill (assuming you were able to see it)?

        1 Reply
        1. re: peppermint pate

          Three courses was $38, and a soft drink was $3.50 (which was highway robbery for the drink in my mind, although perhaps that was two soft drinks if indeed the one I left in the bar and the one that was delivered to me were different drinks, but in that case, I'm annoyed that I was told to leave one in the bar and then charged for a second one.)

        2. Interesting! I find the concept adventurous but I keep wondering how you would know if there's a fly in your soup? Obviously, you wouldn't! I'm also vain enough to worry about how much food I would be wearing when I reached light again.

          Your restaurant experience sounds more like an experiment in what it's like to be blind more than an investigation into what, if anything, the visual experience contributes to the overall dining experience. Jacquilynne, I'm curious whether you think eating in total darkness with guests at home, but only turning out the lights once they've had a chance to check out where their plate is, what's on it, and where the silverware is, would diminish the taste-without-sight experience? I have this fear that if I went for the restaurant experience of total darkness all the way through, I'd be the one whose face is covered with barbecue sauce and clothes covered with soup when we reached light. Which begs the question: Did you have a pact to look each other over when you reached light before going out into the lit world?

          1 Reply
          1. re: Caroline1

            Surprisingly, while I had a great deal of food on my fingers (they *REALLY* need to provide wetnaps to diners) I spilled none on my dress. Though that was primarily because I spent much of the meal bent over my plate, shoveling food in in a manner that would have seemed uncouth had anyone been able to see it.

            I don't think you could replicate this experience at home, unless you have an interior basement room with no windows and a blanket over the door -- and even then I suspect you'd find that your non-load bearing walls don't actually attach to the ceiling quite as cleanly as you might have previous guessed. The "can't see my fingers even as I'm practically touching my eye" feeling of total blackness isn't the same as casual darkness.

          2. I agree this place sounds more concept than restaurant -- and very indulgent (not in a good way). Thanks for the detailed review. I hadn't planned to go there before and this hasn't changed my mind. To me, the place sounds like a bad undergraduate theatre experiment.