Friday, September 4, 2009

Darkness leads to overdrinking at Opaque

Last night I went to Opaque, the restaurant where you eat in complete darkness. We ended up taking our desserts to go, because I was sitting at the table, holding my head in my hands, while my wife was begging me to keep talking.

Sounds like a nightmare, huh? For her it was; she says she woke up in the middle of the night, convinced we were back in the restaurant, and was relieved when she saw the lights of the city in the window.

At Opaque, when they say "Dining in the Dark," it's absolutely dark. You can waggle your hand in front of your face and not notice any motion.

I don't think that's why I felt lousy, though. The air in the basement was stifling. I ate too much. And I drank too much, too fast.

This never happens to me. I'm a professional drinker. I drink about 360 days a year, and I'd say I feel physically bad from drinking maybe 3 days per year (often after karaoke excessiveness in Japan). When I get to the point of excess, I stop.

But not in the dark. I guess visual cues are important in judging how much you're drinking. But I also think I got more wasted than I usually would, because we only had one bottle of wine, albeit at 14.5% alcohol. Normally I can handle that; in the dark, I could not. As soon as we ascended to light and fresh air, I felt better.

That said, we were both glad we ordered wine, because my wife said she could not have handled sitting there without it; the alcohol calmed her. I didn't have that paranoia, but who knowingly pays $79 per person to expose one's spouse to paralyzing fear?

I'll get to the food in a moment, but really, it's secondary to the experience of being at a restaurant table in complete darkness. You can hear conversations around you, even seemingly far from you (they have 14 tables), and you're also aware that everyone can hear you. You want to keep talking to stay connected with your partner, yet I also found myself self-editing, not wanting to reveal myself to everyone in the room.

Our conversation all night was thus starts and stops, although the best strand of it was about darkness: Where was the most complete darkness you remember?

We both agreed on a couple instances in nighttime scuba dives where we turned off our lights. Once, in Chuuk, I lost track of the group and we were off by ourselves; we couldn't tell which way was up, and it took me a while to convince my wife to turn off her light in the middle of the ocean at night. But once we did, the surface of the ocean shone with moonlight, we could see other divers' lights, and it was nowhere near as dark as dining at Opaque.

You're completely at the mercy of your servers, who are all sight-impaired; it's an interesting role reversal. They lead you in, you holding onto their shoulder. They bring you the food and explain where it is. And if you panic, or need to use the restroom, they lead you out.

Our eyes never adjusted; everything was still completely black until the moment we reached the doorway. I'm glad they're not open for lunch, because leaving here in daylight would be too shocking.

Now, about the meal:

Opaque's wine list is an outrage, with McManis Family Vineyards wines and Pepi Pinot Grigio -- $10 wines retail -- selling for more than $50. Nothing against the McManises, they do as good a job with Central Valley fruit as anyone. But $50?

Fortunately, here's a tip: You can also order from the wine list of Indigo, next door, which has both a much greater selection and more reasonable markups.

Ironically, I ended up screwing up my wine order. From Indigo's list, I chose a 2006 Dehlinger "See's Selection" Estate Russian River Chardonnay ($52). I thought I was getting away with something; there was an '06 Dehlinger Chard on Opaque's list (which wasn't as detailed) at $49, so I thought naturally I was getting a more exclusive wine at essentially the same price. But I may have outsmarted myself; this morning I looked it up and discovered that Robert Parker called the regular Dehlinger estate bottling "the top cuvee" and liked it better than the See's Selection.

Only now do I get the irony of paying more for See's at Opaque. Ba-dum-dum.

Anyway, I could have had a Pinot Noir (Indigo has a few interesting ones), but I had my palate set for Dehlinger's Chard when I thought that was the best option from Opaque's limited list, particularly with the dishes we were ordering. Both of us ordered -- note the verb -- ahi tuna tartare with diced apples, wonton crisps, green onions and wasabi aioli as an app. For my main I had grilled sterling salmon over coconut risotto with green onions, sugar snap peas, sauteed wild mushrooms and curry mint sauce. My wife had grilled chicken breast over roasted red potatoes with brussels sprouts and basil cream sauce.

Trust is an issue with Dining in the Dark. Because Opaque's wine list was lacking in info, I insisted on seeing the bottle before we went inside. I also carried it outside with me later to convince myself they hadn't switched it out for something cheaper, because as it warmed up in the stifling basement, it lost its crispness and green-apple charm and openly smelled of its 14.5% alcohol. This was a wine that needed an ice bucket, but this was not the restaurant for that. So, word of advice on Dining in the Dark -- order red wine.

Initially, though, the Dehlinger was just fine: crisp enough, toasty enough, balanced, with some earthy notes against the apple and pear fruit.

The wine is served in Riedel's O glass, which is perfect; who wants a stem in the dark? You also get an overfilled glass of water. Both my wife and I spilled some of ours, and we heard others in the restaurant exclaim when they did so as well. It's a discomfiting start to the meal and something the restaurant should address, but at the same time, I really wanted a water refill and never got one. The only way to summon a server is to start speaking loudly for one, and the servers are busy. Plus, I'll say it -- who wants to order around a blind person, especially one in charge of your dinner?

We were served a one-bite amuse bouche of cucumber with tomato. For our apps, my wife did not get the tuna tartare; instead she was served the baby arugula salad. Even though we were discussing the dish, it took her a while to say that she did not have the same thing as me. At first, she just thought there wasn't much tuna. Then she didn't want to send it back, because she didn't want to cause trouble.

I liked the tuna tartare. Though you are given silverware, I ended up eating it mostly with my fingers. Who could see? I liked the texture, particularly the crispy wontons and apple cubes. Another tip: Do not wear white to Dining in the Dark.

Then you're served a platter of crudites with three dips, including a good curry mayonnaise and one dip that tasted spoiled to me; not sure which it was. The snap peas were particularly good and I ate a lot of them. But I also think this dish contributed to my later distress. I don't usually eat much mayo or aioli, and I have no idea how much curry mayo I loaded up on the carrot sticks.

My wife gave me some of her chicken breast, a dish I've seen many people on Yelp complain about, and I can see why: it had no flavor. But hey folks, that's what you get for ordering chicken breast. The salmon dish was pretty decent; the salmon had a crispy edge, but was not overdone. I didn't actually find the coconut risotto until I put down my fork and felt around with my hands. Once again I enjoyed eating this much more with my fingers.

I remember reading once about Indian food that you're supposed to enjoy its tactile sensations as much as flavors and aromas. Perhaps that's even more true for Western food: who doesn't like picking up corn on the cob? Perhaps the positive benefit of this dinner is that I'll go back to eating like I did when I was 2, at least when nobody's looking.

I have no idea about the portion sizes, but I started feeling bad while the entree plate was still in front of me. I stopped eating but it was too late. I ate the entire tuna tartare plate, which seemed substantial, a lot of crudites with aioli, two chunks of pretty-good bread (also comforting when they put it in a basket in the center of the table) and most of my entree. But I don't have any idea how much food that actually was. All I know is it was too much, hence my bad feelings.

Despite that, I did taste the two desserts when we got home, and think the bittersweet chocolate cake is slightly better than the espresso panna cotta. My wife finished the former; the latter is in the garbage.

Fortunately what fresh air didn't cure immediately, a good night's sleep did when I got home. Unlike my wife, I was not troubled by Dining in the Dark flashbacks. And in fact, if I ever get thrown into solitary confinement, instead of comparing the sensation to fearing being eaten by sharks, I will compare it to searching for coconut risotto. I'm sure that's just what the Unabomber's thinking every day in his Supermax Dining in the Dark experience.


Dawn Clark said...

HA! Great article. And leave it to M, never wanting to cause trouble. ;)

Deborah Kwan said...

Is this place for real? It's definitely a pre-recession concept. Vividly written, I feel an overwhelming desire to step out for some fresh air.

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks for commenting. Yep, it's still very real, and very much in need of better ventilation. But I have to take some of the blame for poor portion control.

BTW, Mami now claims she's glad she had the experience once in her life. Over on her blog ( ) she's much more sanguine about the experience. So that's good. I was just a working fan short of enjoying it, and even so would consider it as having been worthwhile.