Cayman’s chefs are known for pushing the boat out when it comes to innovation and creativity, yet few have dared to tread so boldly as Keith Griffin, owner and executive chef at Bacchus. His Dinner in the Dark evening, held at the beginning of April, was an exercise in sensory deprivation of one sort, but did it serve to heighten the taste buds or did it just leave diners floundering in the dark? Business Editor Lindsey Turnbull went along to find out and reports.
I’m a pretty adventurous eater and up for most things culinary-wise, yet when the opportunity arose to try out Cayman’s newest dining experience – dining in total darkness – I was a bit skeptical. Would the food end up in my mouth or in my lap? Would it even get to the table in one piece and would I choke on a chicken bone? I needed to find out.
Keith describes from where he found the inspiration for the event, “It is a concept that originated out of Europe (originally Germany) and was introduced by a blind gentleman who wanted to give people the experience of being blind for a couple of hours (he actually uses blind servers in his dining room). The idea has now taken of in Los Angeles and Las Vegas where it is getting a lot of media attention.”
Entering the friendly and familiar Bacchus restaurant (at this point still illuminated), diners immediately realised that they meant business, as every conceivable window and doorframe had been taped up with black bin bags to ensure that not a chink of light would be let into the dining area and spoil the experience. Champagne and nibbles were on hand to get the diners into a party mood and then we were shown to our specially assigned seating, tables notably barer than usual with just a stark knife, fork, spoon, napkin and plastic glass per seating.
Keith says, “We had to make sure that the environment was safe for the guests which included plastic drinkware; for obvious reasons we could not take any chances with glasses getting smashed or incidents of that nature.”
Explaining the set up at the start of the evening to the assembled guests, Keith said that the dinner would be served in three stages of darkness, with light intermissions in between for those who needed a bathroom break, etc. His staff had been trained just for a couple of days in the art of serving food using night vision goggles (not easy – your field of vision is limited to a small square and your depth perception is off, I tried them) and so each food course would be served and eaten in total darkness. Diners were requested not to use cell phones or cameras which might illuminate the dining room and for the most part diners complied with this request.
Once wine had been poured (I started with a Pinot Grigio Bottega Vinaia 2006, from Trentino Italy, which was crisp, dry and a great match with the first couple of courses) the dining room was eventually placed in complete darkness. Almost immediately the sound levels from guests’ chatter rose as the sense of sight was deprived. You might imagine that your eyes would adjust to the dark and faint outlines might be discerned but Bacchus had done an excellent job in sealing any light out and the room really was pitch black.
Keith says creating the menu for the evening was not hard. “The menu itself was not too much of a difficulty; we did not have to consider presentation of the food (since no one saw it). We are all aware that once we are deprived of our sense of sight our other senses are increases so we wanted to include bold flavours and aromas and we had to make sure that everything on the plate was edible, no bones etc. We also had to be very careful to be aware of any food borne allergies with the guests.”
As adventurous eaters and thankfully with no allergies, we did not read the menu but wanted to use the opportunity to see if we could ascertain what we were eating by taste alone (à la Gordon Ramsay) which added to the fun.
First course was sending out garlicky signals from the kitchen well before the two red pinprick lights from the waitress’s night time goggles approached. As the waitress adeptly placed the dish on the table as if she was with full vision, the test was on. The dish (skillet seared Maine diver scallops wrapped in smoked salmon with an eggplant babaganoush and chimichurri pesto) was simply presented and just required a fork and a well placed finger to be scooped up and devoured. The soft and succulent seafood was not difficult to discern by taste and smell alone and an easy first course to consume in darkness.
Next followed a dish along a similar vein in terms of texture but not in flavour – a seared carpaccio of buffalo rib eye on pepper greens with a goat cheese crème and white truffle oil. Again the scent of the dish, heavy with truffle oil, made its entrance way before the food itself, a gentle plate of melt in the mouth beef which was easily and happily digested rather quickly. We even got a “well done!” from the waitress because we had cleaned out plates, without realising it. I suppose we could have licked them clean and no-one would have known.
Before diners knew it (subdued) lights were back on to allow for a quick break, before the lights went off again and the following two courses were on their way.
My favourite dish of the evening was then served, an intensely flavoured roasted pumpkin latte served with crisped turnips and sevruga caviar. This was a fabulous combination of flavours and textures – almost-sweet, rich soup with savoury crisps and a hit of salty caviar bubbles to round off the dish of perfectly. A real treat and surprisingly easy to eat by touch alone.
Taste buds were ramped to fever pitch with the following course – wild hog sausage and jalapeno bacon wrapped tiger shrimp on a ragout of beans with an onion grenadine marmalade and mustard grilled ciabatta. Perhaps it was because I could not see, but the flavours seem to leap out of this dish and hit you with almost sledge hammer proportions (in a good way.)
Another quick break followed, with more wine poured (this time a Five Rivers Pinot Noir 2006 from California, with a fruity, oaky nose and spicy strawberries on the palate) the assembled guests again ramped up the noise levels to an uproarious level (I think they were enjoying themselves!) and we plunged back into darkness and the final two courses of the evening. Upholding the flavour levels, Keith had created an Indian spiced loin of lamb with a pea cous cous, date sauce and smoked bacon dust. As with previous dishes, the warm aromas of Indian spices (think turmeric, coriander, cumin and cardamom) wafted from the kitchen area and signaled that the mains were on their way. This was a hearty dish that required quite a bit of maneuverings around the plate in the dark, but the combination of flavours and textures was clever and worked extremely well together.
A white chocolate crème brulee with a red berry and Cabernet compote was an easy, sweet and delicious finale to this incredibly well planned and well executed event.
Once the lights finally came on to their usual glare it was rather like waking up from a pleasant dream, only with a full stomach.
Keith says he wanted to bring something new and unique to Cayman and create something that people would remember and talk about, and he certainly succeeded in his aims. Restaurant manager Martin Pilat says the response by diners was fantastic: “Everyone had a great time, the feedback was very positive and lots of people were already asking about the next dinner in the dark. We treated the dinner as a learning experience and we now know what to expect and where we can improve. In fact, the whole event went so well that we are looking forward to the next one which will be in six weeks time on 16 May and every six weeks on Saturdays thereafter.”
Bacchus is not stopping here – their next new event will be a singles dinner on 9 May (and every six weeks on Saturdays thereafter) whereby Bacchus will serve a five-course menu for singles only with a seat position change after each course. Keith says they are planning to alternate every six weeks between singles dinner and dinner in the dark.