Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Mystery Meet in the Dark: Blind Dining at Hampshire House

I wait and wait for my eyes to adjust. There's no possible adjustment; not a sliver of light sneaks in. The walls could be inches away or a football field away for all I know, until my ears begin to pick up on the acoustics, hinting at room size. Echolocation would come in handy here.

I feel a bit of claustrophobic panic rising up: the air feels heavy, like a sauna, as the darkness is so all-encompassing. Oh, there's a person right there. Right there, too. Where am I? Loud piano chords interfere with my perception of what's around me, so I focus on my place setting. Fork on the left. Napkin in the middle; napkin now on my lap. Knife on the right. Most important: gin and tonic at the tip of the knife. Good. Wait, where'd my fork go? I recover it from Joel, to my immediate left and in a mischievous mood, and I retaliate by jabbing at him with it, because stabbing each other with utensils in the dark is surely a safe game.

Wait, how'd we get here?

It's Mystery Meet Number 4, and unlike the first three, this one had two elements of mystery: the location and the special theme. (I attended the inaugural Mystery Meet at Ten Tables in Cambridge.) In the weeks leading up to the event, clues were released, one at a time:
  • This Meet will provide a mysterious and groundbreaking culinary experience – guaranteed to be a first for the city of Boston!
  • This tradition can be traced back to a visually-impaired German bovine.
  • David Lee Roth, Michael Crichton and Uma Thurman have lived in the same neighborhood as this restaurant.
  • Zurich, 1999
  • a.k.a. “Melville’s”
The first clue intrigued me; the second one gave away that the event would be dining in the dark. ("Visually-impaired German bovine" led me to google "German blind cow", which led me to blindekuh, the famous blind dining restaurant in Zurich and Basal.) Google helped with the third clue as well; the answer is Beacon Hill. The fourth clue confirmed what I already knew from the second, as that is the logo of blindekuh, which was founded in Zurich in 1999. As for the final clue, Melville's is the name of the fictional restaurant above Cheers. I located the Beacon Hill Cheers on a Google map but couldn't figure out what was above it in real life. Turns out it's a function venue called Hampshire House. This event sold out in about five minutes flat. Gotta be quick!

The first part of the event was in a normally lit cocktail lounge, where we were given big name tags with the snazzy Dining in the Dark logo on the back. (For what? Turns out they'd be in front of us on the tables so the waitstaff could address us by name. This is useful when a full plate of food is coming flying at you.)

Joel, my brave dining companion.
We peered into the dining room, a candlelit library.Wait, candles? Maybe we won't be totally in the dark.

After some well-lit mingling and cocktail time, we were handed heavy duty blindfolds, divided into four tables of seven or eight people each, and instructed to place a hand on the shoulder in front of us to be led to our seat. At some point during the walk, my hand slipped away and I stood aimlessly, turning my head side to side as if I could actually see. A waiter grabbed me and led me the rest of the way.

My table clumsily decided to introduce ourselves. Shouting over the din of the clattering piano, there's Heather and Harrison to the right. Glenn and Katrin of Wine Dine With Us to the left. And of course Joel, to my immediate left, still stealing my stuff.

There was narration, something about a jungle. Lost jokes ensued. So did a loudly posed question probably on many diners' minds, "Who's playing footsie with me?" We traveled through each course, tentatively at first and then growing bolder with our hands, mapping out our plates and the textures of the mystery foods we would trust enough to consume.

I blindly took photos throughout the meal; view the following slideshow for a laugh:

With one sense cut off, the others seemed hypersensitive. The music seemed uncomfortably loud through much of the meal, smells were strong, and most importantly, tastes were intense. Much of the food was seasonally appropriate: autumn squashes and such that usually seem bland to my palate. I was surprised to enjoy most of them more than ever before.

First Course: Samplings from Our Cauldrons
Off to a strong start! All three soups had bold flavors I was surprised to enjoy immensely. Before I became a food blogger, I'd never dream of eating anything containing words like "cream of parsnip"! (This photo was taken after the meal, blindfold off, lights on.)

Trilogy of Gingered Organic Chantenay Carrot Soup, Caramelized Pumpkin Soup & Cream of Parsnip with Chives
Second Course: Textures from the Ocean
The wonton crisp was heavenly, reminiscent of the delightfully greasy, crunchy noodles served before the meal at Chinese restaurants. I totally cleaned the plate. (This photo was also taken after the meal.)

Skillet-seared scallop and shrimp, garnished with a wonton crisp, green apple, lemon thyme on a bed of arugula
Third Course: Roast Beast and Trimmings
This one was the weakest link. The chicken was cold (probably so we wouldn't burn ourselves) and unpleasant. I wasn't a fan of the zucchini or squash, but the carrot was alright and the potatoes were the sole high note for this course. (This photo was taken with the blindfold on, which explains why half the plate is missing, but I got lucky on the lighting!)

Pecan-crusted chicken breast, oven-roasted red bliss potatoes with rosemary miniature zucchini, squash burst, and carrots
Fourth Course: Heavenly Sweets
Heavenly is right. Turns out Hampshire House has a cookie night...weekly, I think, but I didn't grab the brochure and the information doesn't appear to be on the website. Apparently they're searching for the best cookie recipes in the world. The three that came with dessert were definitely high up on the list. Drool. (Photo taken with blindfold.)

House-made bittersweet crackle, double chocolate chip cookie and cinnamon ice cream with an oatmeal crisp
After devouring dessert, we were invited to take off our blindfolds at the sound of a chime. Wait, the wall's all the way back there? There's a table over there? It took some time to adjust to the actual layout versus the layout I had perceived while blindfolded.

Overall, the evening was lots of fun. I was hoping for more challenging foods; the overheard "I'm eating a chicken heart!" was sadly untrue, and none of the courses proved very daring. Three out of four were solidly enjoyable, though, especially with the flavors amplified by lack of sight.

The narration and music make the whole thing a bit hokey - more vaudeville than educational experience about what it's like to be blind - but I think that's ok. If I ever find myself in Zurich or Basal, I'd love to visit blindekuh, and I have a hunch the experience would be a lot more intense and a better approximation of what it's like to live without sight, but I don't think that is (or necessarily should be) the goal of TeamBonding's Dining in the Dark experience.


  1. Thanks for coming to check out our first ever Dining in the Dark. We are glad you enjoyed it. We will use your comments to improve the experience as our take on the concept is based on the idea that what we present is a feast for the senses and we will fine tune the music, the menu and the experience as it moves forward.

  2. This sounds like such an interesting event and I was sorry I had to miss it! BTW, kudos to your camera skills with a blindfold on!

  3. This is an incredible post -- love your storytelling... and I love that you took photos blindfolded. I don't know if I would like not being able to see my food. It sounds like you had fun though. Sorry about that cold chicken.


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