Dining in the dark forces you to close your eyes and experience your food, whether you eat blindfolded or in a pitch black restaurant
Text by Christina Flemming
When we talk about “culinary adventures,” we’re usually referring to something outdoors, like spending the day on a lobster boat or learning to shuck fresh oysters, but in cities like Toronto and Montreal, people go indoors to eat in the dark at restaurants like O.Noir.
O.Noir is a pitch black restaurant. The dining room is in complete darkness. You order the food in a lighted reception area before holding your friend’s shoulders as you’re led by visually impaired servers, or “guides”, through the darkness to your table. These restaurants, in cities all over the world, often hire visually impaired servers in order to turn the table on diners, allowing them to experience the kinds of challenges the waiters go through on a daily basis.
Last March, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) in Charlottetown hosted the first Dining in the Dark event in Atlantic Canada. PEI may not have a pitch black restaurant yet, but that didn’t stop the fundraiser’s organizers from providing diners with black blindfolds to wear while eating.
During this year’s event, held at the Holland College Culinary Institute, I donned the blindfold to experience what it would be like to eat without seeing my food. It was hard. Really hard. But definitely something everyone should try at least once.
The first challenge was getting ready for dinner. What could I wear that could be salvaged if I happened to spill food or wine all over it? How much attention did I really need to devote to hair and makeup if no one was going to be ‘looking’ at me over dinner? Would someone make off with my purse? And more importantly, what if my companion got up and left me alone at the table, oblivious and talking to myself?
Our hostess for the evening warned us, “There’ll be a lot of reaching and probing in the dark. Think back to when you were younger.” She also advised us of the dangers of reaching for beverages, “The worst thing you can do is reach through the air for your glass. Curl your fingers, keep your hands low to the table and reach out from the sides of your plate to locate whatever you’re looking for.”
Many Dining in the Dark attendees opted not to wear their blindfolds throughout the evening. However, one of the organizers told me that celebrity Chef Michael Smith attended last year and he—brave Chef that he happens to be—managed to keep his blindfold over his eyes the entire time. I was determined to do the same.
First off, conversation changes when you’re blindfolded. Since there isn’t any eye contact, you must address the people at your table by name or they won’t know who you’re talking to. Secondly, you feel that it’s important to only say very interesting things. I suppose this impulse comes from the fact that all you have are your words—you can’t lean across the table batting your eyelashes.
I smelled the smoked tomato bisque before the waiter even tapped my shoulder and explained that he was setting it in front of me. Locating the spoon was not difficult, but even if you close your eyes and imagine bringing a spoonful of liquid toward your mouth, it isn’t easy to trust that you won’t spill it all over your lap. Someone at our table, I couldn’t tell who, asked, “How do we know when it’s all gone?”
When the main course arrived, we were instructed to think of our plates as clocks. There was salmon and grilled asparagus at three o’clock, braised short ribs at six o’clock and panko crusted chicken schnitzel at nine o’clock. Initially, I believed that they’d forgotten my short ribs. It was disorienting to be in the dark. My companion, peeking from underneath his blindfold, reminded me that my short ribs were, indeed, located at six o’clock.
We were told in advance that it’s most useful to probe with the fork in order to navigate the plate but it’s much harder than I’d imagined. It was oftentimes frustrating to bring up an empty forkful. Eventually, I started to use the tip of my finger to edge food onto the fork.
Eating without sight heightens your senses but also makes you appreciate them. The dark dining trend began in Germany where a blind pastor, Jorge Spielmann, used to blindfold his dinner guests to make them understand how he experienced eating. Spielmann eventually opened a restaurant in Zurich called Blind Cow.
At the end of our unique dining experience, we were told we could keep our blindfolds. “What you do with the blindfolds when you get home is entirely up to you,” our hostess playfully instructed us.
I totally put mine on at the first mention of spring cleaning.
Dining in the dark forces you to close your eyes and experience your food, whether you eat blindfolded or in a pitch black restaurant Text by Christina Flemming When we talk about “culinary adventures,” we’re usually referring to something outdoors, like spending the day on a lobster boat or learning to shuck fresh oysters, but […]
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All’s fair in love and seafood chowder, right? G! Eats resident foodie Christina Flemming investigates, one delicious bowl at a time
Seafood chowder is a lot like pizza.
My five year-old self is pinching her nose at the thought of comparing pizza with food that smells like the ocean, but I’m really making that comparison. When it comes to pizza, some people are fierce about thick doughy crust, there are thin crust fanatics and some will eat anything smothered in melted cheese and bacon. Seafood chowder, believe it or not, is just as diverse.
There are the thick creamy chowders that you could almost walk across, then there are thin, almost ethereal chowders, not to mention smoky corn-laced bowls and the blushing tomato-based variety. Granted, you don’t usually order chowder by phone and have a kid deliver it in thirty minutes or less, but the contents of the chowder are as diverse as the toppings on your pizza.
The contestants who compete in the PEI International Shellfish Chowder Championship—a fierce chowder war held every September in Charlottetown—can select ingredients from a list of PEI seafood which includes: PEI flounder, haddock, cod, hake, bar clams, soft shell clams, oysters, cultivated mussels, quahogs, lobster, scallops, halibut, salmon, rock crab and snow crab.
If you grew up eating grandma’s creamy seafood chowder brimming with lobster and scallops every Christmas Eve, you might not be so receptive to a milk-based version. If you’re from Bermuda (though I suspect my readership from this region may be slightly limited), you might find the pale North American chowder boring because you’re accustomed to a dark rich seafood chowder made with browned or burnt sugar. And I won’t even get into the love the people of Maine have for clam “chowdah.”
Winner of the 2011 PEI & International Chowder Competition, The Selkirk's chowder is velvety, containing haddock, shrimp, and scallops. Get a bowl for $11.
Even Herman Melville teaches us about chowder diversity in Moby Dick: “Fishiest of all fishy places was the Try Pots, which well deserved its name; for the pots there were always boiling chowders. Chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fish-bones coming through your clothes.” And after Ishmael polishes off his clam chowder, he orders a bowl of cod chowder, “In a few moments the savoury steam came forth again, but with a different flavour.”
Back in 2007, the winning seafood chowder at the PEI International Shellfish Festival was titled, “Just Like Dad’s Seafood Chowder” and it consisted of scallops with lobster ravioli in a creamy broth spiked with a shot of Triple Sec. On the other hand, the 2011 champion, Chef Aaron Ferrill of The Selkirk located in the Delta Prince Edward, took first place with a thin chowder comprised of haddock, shrimp and scallops. The winner of the chowder championship gets $2,000 and the right to use the 2011 International Chowder Championship Seal on their menu. While many restaurants claim to have “award-winning seafood chowder,” the Selkirk really does. There is a poster in the Delta elevator announcing this fact and, of course, the menu reinforces that this chowder is a “Winner.” I recently visited the Delta to see if this award-winning chowder would live up to the hype.
The chowder is served as an appetizer and the portion size is befitting. It comes to the table in a small egg-shaped white bowl, without any accoutrements—no Parker House Rolls or biscuits to be found. One might describe it as the Victoria Beckham of seafood chowders—the broth is exceedingly thin and the presentation is posh and impeccable. Two wafer-thin strips of fried potato float amid a frothed surface. There is a nice contrast between the light broth and the ample chunks of fish but one cannot help but yearn for a bit more seasoning. It’s akin to a low-fat latte version of seafood chowder; a pleasing dish if you like something light and frothy before dinner.
Digging into a bowl of Gahan House chowder, which has lobster, mussels, haddock, and scallops, is like "successfully panning for gold." Gahan's chowder is $10.49.
Not quite ready to end my chowder tour, I head to Gahan House. Granted, there cannot be a comparison made between the Gahan Seafood Chowder and The Selkirk’s as they are different genres. The Gahan chowder comes in a huge bowl—though listed under “half pints,” this is no appetizer portion. The chowder is thick like a velvet curtain and eating it is like successfully panning for gold because there are so many chunks of lobster, plump mussels, pieces of haddock and scallops. Wisps of sweet onion provide the chowder with texture, while miniscule dots of chive punch up the flavour. It’s served topped with thin strips of fried potato and accompanied by a small biscuit. This is chowder your grandmother and your boyfriend will love.
After two consecutive bowls of chowder, I look for fish bones coming through my dress but then, feeling sleepy, think back to the inn keeper’s words to Ishmael and his friend as they go to bed, “The chowder; clam or cod to-morrow for breakfast, men?”
All’s fair in love and seafood chowder, right? G! Eats resident foodie Christina Flemming investigates, one delicious bowl at a time Seafood chowder is a lot like pizza. My five year-old self is pinching her nose at the thought of comparing pizza with food that smells like the ocean, but I’m really making that […]
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Photography and text by Christina Flemming
It is historically rumoured that the Duke of Wellington didn’t really like food. It wasn’t even like he had to cook; he had a huge kitchen staff working tirelessly to thrill him during every dinner service, but nothing really impressed the velvet socks off him.
The Duke of Wellington, after all, was an important guy. Arthur Wellesley was the leader who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Not everybody’s a foodie, but there were a few things old Arthur liked. He enjoyed beef, he liked mushrooms, and he loved pastry. So his culinary team put them together and created what we like to call Beef Wellington, named after the Duke’s famous victory and said to resemble a polished riding or Wellington boot.
Atlantic Smoked Salmon Wellington - a tasty variation of a classic dish!
Though most accounts agree on the origin of the dish, it’s important to note that there are disputers. In The New York Times Food Encyclopaedia, Theodora FitzGibbon provides a recipe for “Steig Wellington.” She uses the Irish spelling for steak, claiming that the dish is of Irish origin and that it was merely a favourite of the Duke of Wellington. Incidentally, many years later, the dish was also a fave meal of President Richard Nixon.
Classic Beef Wellington consists of seared beef, brushed with a topping of duxelle (mushroom paste with herbs), wrapped in puff pastry, baked in the oven and served with some type of sauce—commonly Madeira sauce (made with super-sweet Madeira wine). Even if you’ve never ordered your kitchen staff to prepare you a plate of Beef Wellington, you’re likely to have seen Ramsay yelling at his protégés on Hell’s Kitchen for either over or undercooking the Wellington. Bloody Hell!
But why go for beef when you’re surrounded by water?
Two local chefs have created their own twists on the dish. Chef Ilona Daniel, formerly of Daniel Brenan Brickhouse, was recently serving up Atlantic Smoked Salmon Wellington. Even with the beef replaced by flakey smoked salmon and drizzled with a sweet pea veloute, the dish is both heavy and heavenly. As the Brickhouse menu will be changing due to Daniel’s departure and the incorporation of a new chef, we may have to Google our own Smoked Salmon Wellington recipes in the future. Numerous variations exist online, many with Dijon as a main flavouring ingredient.
Halibut Wellington is perhaps even less common than Smoked Salmon Wellington. Islanders can find a recipe for this dish in Charlottetown Chef Paul Lucas’ first book, Prince Edward Island Seafood: Local Fare, Global Flavours (Acorn Press). In a recent interview with The Guardian, Lucas explains that his Halibut Wellington is topped with duxelle and encased in store-bought pastry and eventually topped with cream sauce made of dried mushrooms reduced to a powder with an electric coffee mill. He explains that meatier types of fish, such as halibut, often make nice substitutes for beef. Who says you can’t serve Wellington to your vegetarian friends?
If you are still unable to forsake fresh island beef (quite understandable), it’s easy to get your hands on a recipe for Beef Wellington just the way the Duke liked it. And with Valentine’s Day fast approaching, it might be a good time to test your own culinary capabilities…
Christina Flemming is G!’s newest foodie who has recently come to the Island and learned how to shuck oysters and throw enough elbow to get to the front of the crowd of samplers at the International Chowder Championships. She is passionate about food ranging from oatcakes to octopus. She will eat anything at least once, but there are a couple of things she will never eat twice; namely, pig fat and raw sea urchin.
Photography and text by Christina Flemming It is historically rumoured that the Duke of Wellington didn’t really like food. It wasn’t even like he had to cook; he had a huge kitchen staff working tirelessly to thrill him during every dinner service, but nothing really impressed the velvet socks off him. The Duke of Wellington, […]
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