For my last birthday, I received a gift certificate to the O’NOIR Restaurant. It was the perfect gift because I had been wanting to try it ever since I first heard about the concept of dining in the dark. I went to the restaurant in Toronto, ON on a Saturday night with Ed and my sister. It was a wonderful gift, and a very interesting experience that I’m Very grateful for. We were disappointed in the food and service so I decided to write my first restaurant review. Please note that I am not a professional and this review is based on my personal opinion and experience only.
O’NOIR is a restaurant that offers the unique experience of dining in the dark. It started in Europe and O’NOIR can also be found in Australia, L.A., New York and in Montreal and Toronto, Canada. This is meant to allow people to enjoy their food with heightened senses while gaining a better understanding of what it’s like to be blind. More interestingly, the wait staff are blind. (I think it’s absolutely wonderful that these job opportunities have opened up for the visually impaired. And according to O’NOIR’s website, 5% of their profits are given to local associations that support blind and visually impaired people.)
How it Works:
Cell phones, cameras, flashlights, and any glow in the dark accessories or watches are prohibited. The restaurant in Toronto, Canada is completely underground and is divided into several small dining rooms. When you first enter, there is a large waiting area with a bar where the host/hostess explains the restaurant to you, shows you the menu and takes your order. There was only one hostess that we could see and she was clearly overwhelmed on the busy Saturday night. We had a reservation and had to wait 10 to 15 minutes to be seated which isn’t bad, but we would have had to wait much longer had we not initially approached her. The hostess leads you to a dining room and introduces you to your server. In a single file, with your hand on the person’s shoulder in front of you, you are led through two doors to your table. The door behind you is closed before the door infront of you is opened to ensure that the dining room remains completely dark at all times. The wait staff are blind and they stay in the dining room at all times as you have to call out to them if you want to use the washroom or when you’re ready to leave. There are runners that aren’t visually impaired that bring the food and dishes to and from the kitchen for the servers.
When you’re first seated at your table, your server describes everything that’s on your table and asks you to feel for them so that you can orient yourself. This is important because when your server brings the food, he/she hands the plate to you and you have to put the plate down without knocking over your glass of water. Similarly, when your server comes to remove your plates, you have to hand the plates to her/him.
After 10 minutes of getting accustomed to the dark, the server brought my appetizer, but not my sister’s. We waited 10 more minutes before asking the waitress if my sister’s appetizer was still coming. She told us that it was on the way. Then 10 minutes later, she finally came with our bread. Getting our bread was a neat experience, but not quite sanitary, because the server brought a basket and we had to reach out to feel for the bread. There were only as many rolls as there were people at our table, but I still couldn’t help but wonder how many other peoples’ hands touched that basket. By the time we finished our bread, my sister’s appetizer still hadn’t arrived. The server then came over and asked if we were ready for our mains. She had forgotten about my sister’s appetizer. So we asked for more bread and butter while we waited for my sister’s main. Several minutes later, she came back with two bread rolls and no butter. We reminded her that there were three of us and asked for more butter (for the second time). A few minutes later, my sister got her appetizer. Another 5 minutes after that, the waitress brought my sister her bread and butter, but no butter for Ed and I. Service went much more smoothly after that. Although our server didn’t have a very good memory, she was very nice and had a great attitude. She was very patient with the obnoxious table behind us too. Also, I’m sure that most of the wait times were out of her control as she was relying on runners to bring the food.
You have the option of a 2 course meal for $32 (starter + main or main + dessert) or a 3 course meal for $39 (tax and tip not included). There are 3 or 4 options, including a surprise option, for each course. If you order the surprise, the host/hostess will ask you if you have any allergies or if there are any foods that you really dislike. I ordered the surprise options and I was really excited to test my palette. I love the blind folded palette challenges on Chef Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen and after watching professional chefs mistake tuna for eggs, or squash for lobster, I was very curious to see how I would fare. It really is difficult :). Read more under Experience. Overall, I felt that the meal was overpriced considering the taste, quality and portion size of the food. But I think it was worth it for the experience (read more below).
The bread rolls were fantastic – perfectly crispy on the outside and soft and warm on the inside. Bread is always my favourite part of the meal :). My sister ordered the portobello mushroom appetizer and I ordered the surprise starter. This was Ed’s second time at O’NOIR so he skipped the appetizer. Previously, he tried their calamari on salad starter and did not enjoy it. My sister really liked her appetizer and I have to agree that the portobello mushrooms were very fresh and very nicely grilled. However, I was very disappointed with my surprise starter. It was a mixed green salad with grilled vegetables and parmesan cheese. It was under dressed and the vegetables were under seasoned and too oily. I didn’t find out until later that there was supposed to be smoked salmon on my salad and that they left it off because I asked for no shellfish. I Love smoked salmon and was Very disappointed when I heard this. First of all, fish is not shellfish. I Really Really hope that the restaurant staff knew the difference… Let’s assume that the staff left the smoked salmon off just in case it had come in contact with shellfish. Then why not substitute the smoked salmon for something else? Considering the small portion size and bland salad, I felt ripped off.
For the main course, my sister ordered the filet mignon and Ed ordered the veal al limone. Both were served with vegetables and potatoes. The filet mignon was over salted but very good. Ed liked his veal but said that it wasn’t anything special. Their meat was already cut up for them. Once again, I was disappointed with my surprise dish. I later found out that it was veal in a creamy mushroom sauce with vegetables and potatoes. My potatoes were overcooked, the veal was dry and the sauce was too bland (not enough cream or salt). And for some reason, my meat didn’t come pre-cut. The portion sizes were on the small side.
For dessert, we had the chocolate mousse with raspberry and the chocolate Viennese cake with vanilla ice cream. The raspberry flavouring tasted artificial and Ed didn’t even finish his cake or ice cream, because he wasn’t enjoying it. In our opinion, the desserts were mediocre at best.
The dining room isn’t just dark, it is pitch black. What you see with your eyes open is the same as what you see with your eyes closed. It was a strange feeling and, in fact, all three of us got headaches from it. I guess our eyes were straining to find something to focus on. Closing our eyes didn’t seem to help them rest, since it made no difference to our vision.
My sister and I were giggling as we found our seats because on the way in, I brushed up against something and heard someone say, “Someone just touched my head”. I kicked two chairs before I sat down in mine. My sister was seated in the corner and bumped into two walls before finding her chair.
We couldn’t tell if our other senses were heightened. It seemed like people were speaking more loudly because of the dark, but perhaps our hearing was just more sensitive. It’s interesting how obnoxious people are even more annoying in the dark. There was a table behind us that were dominating the entire room. It suddenly got very quiet and my sister said, “It’s nice and quiet now that those people left.” I agreed and then Ed said, “They didn’t leave.” haha They were sitting right behind us and I’m sure they heard what we said but it was all good because we couldn’t see each other :).
I [too] quickly gave up eating with a fork and knife. I found that eating with my hands was actually less messy than trying to be civilized. I buttered my bread with a knife by using my finger tips to mark landmarks on the food and utensils. It worked surprisingly well, but I still ended up with butter all over my fingers 🙂 Eating vegetables with a fork was funny because I got green beans all over my face. It took my sister a while to find the potatoes on her plate. We could hear her fork stabbing the plate repeatedly in search of them. For a while we were convinced that the kitchen had forgotten her potatoes haha.
The best part of this experience for me, was the challenge of identifying everything on my plate. For the surprise starter, I had no difficulty identifying the mixed greens, the grilled portobello mushroom, green beans, green pepper, and parmesan cheese. But, surprisingly, I had trouble identifying the zucchini. I identified the bland taste of zucchini but the texture reminded me more of undercooked squash, so I guessed that it was a type of squash that I wasn’t familiar with. I really like zucchini, but apparently I can’t recognize its texture haha. For the surprise main course, I had no trouble identifying the potatoes, the mixed vegetables, or the mushrooms, but we were all wrong about the meat. I guessed pork and my sister and Ed guessed chicken. But it was veal! In my defense, I rarely eat veal ;).
All 3 of us left O’NOIR in Toronto disappointed, displeased and certain that we would never return. Poor Ed went for the second time to keep us company and he left feeling like it had been a complete waste of his money and time. Overall, the food was poor and the service that we experienced was poor. But having said that, I’m really glad that I went and I still recommend that everyone tries dining in the dark once. It is a Very interesting experience and I had a lot of fun trying to figure out what I was eating. I suggest ordering the surprise dishes to embrace the full experience. Also, I wouldn’t recommend this for a first date because without any visual stimuli, the silence feels much more awkward.