“Dinner in the Dark” at Culinary Capers Catering
Dinner in the Dark: The Experience of a blindfolded dinner event.
Eating blindfolded. It’s an old concept, but rather new to the Vancouver dining scene, and Culinary Capers Catering is one of the first to introduce it. I was invited by Tourism Vancouver to experience “Dinner in the Dark” at Culinary Capers, a local and award winning full service gourmet catering company. It was an eight course blindfolded dinner paired with wines ($150) or without wines ($120) which took place in the back area of their commercial kitchen in Vancouver, BC.
“Dinner in the Dark” is a new concept they’re experimenting with and it is in association with the Dine Out Vancouver program. I had given my reasons in a previous post for why I don’t participate in the traditional “set menu” Dine Out program (see here), so I was curious to see, or I guess not to “see”, the new options offered in the Dine Out festival this year.
I had heard of these blindfolded dinners starting a few years ago in the UK and Europe and had tested the idea myself around this time in 2009 – see my Valentine’s Day 2009 15 Course Blindfolded Dinner. I recall not really liking the experience and enjoying my food more when I could see it, but I was open to trying the idea again under more professional circumstances and dining environment.
The Follow Me Foodie Experience
If the point was to create a different and memorable experience then it served its purpose. However the perspective I’m coming from is perhaps different than most. I’m a pretty serious foodie and food blogger, so talking about the food and deconstructing flavours and ingredients over a 2-3 hour dinner is not unusual for me. I love doing it and it’s how I choose to enjoy, savour and remember my meals.
For me a blindfolded dinner is more of a challenge and training session for my taste buds and palate. That’s where my excitement for it came from. It was a nice personal test, but it’s not a method I would choose to enjoy a gourmet meal. For most others I assume it was simply a unique dining experience and novelty.
Taking away my sight enhanced and hindered my culinary experience. It enhanced the experience because I was forced to rely on the strength of smell and touch to figure out what I was eating. Yes, pretty much all of us ate with our hands and found it much easier and better. I always smell my food, so that wasn’t really anything different, but touching my food is something I only do when dining Indian, African, fast food or BBQ.
On the other hand it hindered my culinary experience because I take great pleasure in the visual presentation of a dish, so I feel as though Chef Jonathan Chovancek’s use of molecular gastronomy and intricate details were quite wasted. Some diners were scared of what they would have to eat, but that didn’t cross my mind at any point. Food doesn’t haven’t to look good for me to try it (see me eating bugs here), but when it’s a fine dining meal with culinary artistry, I do like to see it. Seeing the dish would have also allowed me to eat it in a strategic order and eat certain components of the dish together, as it was intended to be enjoyed.
Being blindfolded was a fun experience for about an hour, but after 2.5 hours I was quite restless and missed visual communication with fellow diners, and just being able to see in general. I also think that people don’t know they don’t like being blindfolded until it happens for more than 10 minutes, so you really have to come mentally prepared, or the experience can become emotionally claustrophobic.
The food itself was fine dining and quite exquisite in style. It was an innovative take on fusion, Pacific Northwest and International cuisine with a focus on sustainable West Coast and local ingredients. During each meal everyone would talk out loud about the food. They would make guesses amongst their tables so it’s a very interactive and communicative dining experience. The descriptions of all the dishes were given after we finished each plate and the photos of each dish were shown at the very end of the meal.
Overall “Dinner in the Dark” is worth it if your looking for a memorable out of the ordinary culinary experience. For me, it made me very grateful not to be blind, taught me that I can’t distinguish preserved mango from preserved pineapple, and gave me satisfaction in knowing that I was able to more or less nail most of the ingredients and flavours. Yes, I have to state that last part because I’m quite happy about that, but I still have lots more learning and training to do.
For the sake of keeping an honest blog, here are comments from fellow diners:
“I liked it. Normally I don’t eat salmon roe because it’s visually not appetizing. Being blindfolded I ate it, liked it and will now eat it.”
“Blindfolded for 2.5 hours is a bit long. Unblindfolded breaks in between courses to socialize would be nice. “
And I should mention 1/50 diners ended up being emotionally distraught from the whole experience and left before the main course.
On the table:
1: Poor 2: OK 3: Good 4: Very good 5: Excellent 6: Tres Excellent!!
We socialized in the foyer and enjoyed hors d’oeuvres and Strawberry Rhubarb Kir with Laughing Stock Chardonnay not blindfolded before making our way into the dining room. I don’t recall trying Culinary Capers Catering before so it was nice to sample a few of their hor d’oeuvres.
- Champagne poached pear on a Parmesan crisp with peppered Boursin cheese and mint.
- They offer a Parmesan Pear Crisp topped with Zinfandel poached pears and chèvre on their regular menu.
- Simple, but tasty appetizer.
- I loved the sweet tender pear with the creamy smooth Bousin, similar to cream cheese, sandwiched between salty thin Parmesan crisps and a hint of mint. The mint added a freshness to the heaviness of the cheese and the pear balanced the saltiness of the Parmesan. I couldn’t taste any of the pepper though.
- With stone-ground mustard and lemon. This is offered on their regular menu as well.
- I found this a bit awkward as an appetizer because the crab cake was wet and dressed in mayo, so it made hand shaking inappropriate.
- On the other hand <– *chuckle* they were quite tasty with a crunch of fresh asparagus and I could really taste a strong accent of lemon zest.
- Served on a potato crisp with lemon aioli and honey caramel.
- This was a variation of their honey roasted lamb hors d’ouevre offered on their regular menu.
- The honey caramel was unique and it tasted like a sweet gelée (jelly). The lamb was shredded and packed tightly with sweet flavours. I wasn’t aware that it was fennel pollen, but I would have paid more attention to it if I had known.
The Blindfolded Dinner
The seating was previously arranged with long communal seating. We were notified that the dinner would be completely blindfolded with servers touching us on our left shoulders before serving food and right shoulders upon taking them away. No worries, they were way ahead of the game with stemless wine glasses and there are a few lights for the sake of the servers. I was blindfolded so I didn’t take photos, but John Watson of Culinary Capers Catering sent these professional ones to me after.
- My guess: Prawn Tempura with salmon roe, chili mayo and Shiso leaf with some sort of sweet and bitter jelly.
- Conclusion: Wild Mexican Prawn Tempura with Sake-cured steelhead roe and shiso served with Granville Island sake and a roasted chili butter sauce
- Wine pairing: Laughing Stock Pinot Gris 2009
- There was a lot of things going on, and I couldn’t taste all those finer details. It wasn’t anything particularly special or unique if you eat a lot of Japanese Izakaya.
- The prawn tempura batter was the flour batter so it had gotten soggy and I wasn’t a fan of that.
- I did like the salty bite of salmon roe which was easy to guess and the jelly was slightly bitter and I would have appreciated more if I knew it was infused with sake.
- If I knew there was a sauce I would have dipped the prawn tempura in it with my first bite, but I found myself almost eating the chili mayo alone, and that’s not really something I like to eat alone.
- Overall it was quite nice, but if I saw it I could have eaten certain components together. It’s not too memorable, but still pretty good.
- The wine was a delicious starting wine and great with seafood or alone. It was crisp, refreshing with a little bit of spice.
- My guess: Mixed greens, frisee, cucumber, mango, chili spiced cashews, goat’s cheese made with molecular gastronomy, tangerine or pomelo segments, Thyme infused foam.
- Conclusion: Wild Greens Salad with Goat Cheese Orbs with pickled watermelon radish, compressed cucumbers, grilled mango and crispy vinaigrette (there were more things than the menu listed, pomelo was one of them)
- Wine pairing: Laughing Stock Pinot Gris 2009
- I can’t rate it because this dish in particular would have been much better enjoyed without the blindfold. It’s one of the most complex salads I’ve had.
- There was almost too much going on with flavours and textures and for me it was getting extra frustrating to not be able to enjoy it collectively with some of everything in one bite.
- There were about 14 components going on in this salad and you can only pick up so many ingredients with your fingers.
- I wanted to eat certain ingredients together and I also wanted to appreciate the visual awe of molecular gastronomy. I knew right away Chef used it as soon as I ate the goat’s cheese bulb and I just wanted to visually appreciate it and see what it looked like before eating it.
- I couldn’t tell it was pickled watermelon radish and the watermelon flavour was definitely not apparent in that.
- It was quite a spicy salad with lots of flavours, but it didn’t process that it was supposed to be a salad representing the “flavours of Asia”, which is what it was supposed to be.
- The vinaigrette was quite spicy and I did find myself scraping the sauce with my finger and finding stuck on bits of something mysterious on my plate.
- I was hit with sweet, savoury, spicy, tangy and meaty flavours from the cheese. There was also some dehydrated food that was made into a powder on my plate and I’mnot sure what that was.
- My guess: Grilled and sliced scallop in a clear lemon grass broth with pureed mango and tamarind pectin jellies, baby turnips and fresh minced pineapples.
- Conclusion: Grilled Canadian Scallop with Yuzu Glaze, Vancouver Island sea kelp and lemon grass dashi served with barbecue pineapple and garlic chive oil
- Wine pairing: Laughing Stock Chardonnay 2009
- This had a lot of Thai flavours and it was a modern take on Thai food.
- I ate most of it with my hands and then used my spoon for the soup part, but at the end I didn’t get some of everything in one bite and wish I had.
- There were a lot of bits in the soup and I totally thought the BBQ pineapple gelée was pureed mango and tamarind boiled down and made into a pectin. I was so close! I thought the tang was coming from tamarind and the sweet from mango with a nice smokiness from being boiled down to a concentrate. Nonetheless the gelée was enjoyable and added a nice accent to the rather mild soup and simply seared scallops.
- The tangy fresh pineapples brought out the citrus in the lemon grass soup which was actually quite mild but very obvious with lemongrass aroma and flavour.
- The scallop was tender and decently seared, but I would prefer more of a crust and I couldn’t tell it had a yuzu glaze at all.
- The BBQ pineapple gelée and fresh pineapple were definitely punches of flavour.
- My guess: Black Cod (Sablefish) with chick peas, crispy deep fried chick peas, white beans, sweet bell peppers and parsley. I guessed the soup was a cauliflower, parsnip, turnip and celeriac veloute with lemon and cauliflower florets.
- Conclusion: Moroccan Spice Sablefish in Parchment with Crispy Chickpeas and sweet peppers served with a cauliflower, salted lemon and porcini veloute
- Wine pairing: Laughing Stock Syrah 2008 (This was easy to guess, quite dry)
- This was delicious. I couldn’t tell it was Moroccan Spices since they were a bit mild, and I thought it was a chick pea and bean pilaf. It was quite sweet from the bell peppers and the alternating textures of chick peas and deep fried chick peas added a nutty and creamy texture that was well enjoyed. I was reminded of the Crispy Ceci from Campagnolo.
- The fish was well seasoned, juicy and moist, but also easily achieved with sable fish.
- The soup was rich and creamy and obviously a veloute with a silky smooth texture. It was thicker than just cauliflower so I thought there were more flavours. I couldn’t taste the porcini aspect or the fact that the lemon was salted. I could taste the lemon through and I liked the texture of cauliflower on top as the garnish.
- It was a very well seasoned and flavoured dish and a nice take on Sable fish. The cauliflower soup wasn’t exactly within Moroccan flavours or theme of the dish, but still delicious as a soup. I think a curried chick pea veloute would have been great.
- My guess: Sous vide Venison with spatzle, beets and turnip puree with veal demi glace.
- Conclusion: Venison cooked sous vide. Seared and glazed with smoked black pepper gastrique with rosemary spatzle, glazed beets and a black garlic bordelaise sauce
- Wine pairing: Laughing Stock Portfolio 2008
- At this point I put my head down to smell the plate and got gravy in my hair 🙁
- I thought it was steak at first, but it was too tender and came to the conclusion of venison after some debate. It wasn’t gamey, but incredibly tender from the cooking method. I knew it was seared first because it had a crust, but debated if it was braised or sous vide afterward.
- This is interesting because people that eat their meat only well done… sure had a surprise when they saw the photo depicted it medium rare! I was very happy and even happier if it convinced people to stop ordering well done steaks!
- I couldn’t taste the black pepper gastrique, and I know what that is, so the flavour of the black pepper didn’t come through enough.
- The spatzle, a rolled Eastern European egg noodle was boiled, but not fried, and still had a chewy firmness to it. I couldn’t taste the Rosemary, but I knew there was some herb.
- I thought the sauce was a tangy, savoury, sweet veal demi glace and it was reduced extremely well to a thick syrupy reduction. The tang was from the black garlic, but bordelaise is so similar to demi glace. It’s actually made with it, but they also boil down bone marrow, wine and butter in a bordelaise – so I’d still say I was damn close!
- This was excellent and I used my knife and fork to eat it but used my fingers to wipe up any ounce of sauce left on my plate.
- As excellent as it was, it wasn’t anything I haven’t really had before so there wasn’t necessarily any flavours that were memorable. However excellently prepared and executed and I still loved it.
- My guess: A molten chocolate cake with Amarena cherries.
- Conclusion: Double Chocolate Souffle with preserved cherries served with your choice of licorice creme anglaise or a burnt orange caramel sauce.
- The menu said “souffle”, but they ended up calling it a flourless chocolate cake. It was definitely more of a flourless chocolate cake than a souffle, despite it being served in a souffle ramekin. the top wasn’t puffed up nor soft enough to be a souffle.
- I asked to sample both sauces on my spoon and I was surprised that I chose the burnt orange caramel sauce.
- The licorice was very strong in the creme anglaise although there was a nice sweetness to it. It was more sophisticated, but a tad too licorice tasting for me. It would have been great with the chocolate though.
- This was very good for what it was but expected and nothing really special minus the addition of the sauce which was very well made.
- It was moist with a rather light and creamy centre and a nice ending to the meal.
Blindfolds removed… and discussion.
At this point we were asked to remove our blindfolds and everyone engaged in casual discussion over the whole experience. We were shown photos of all the food we had just ate on a flat screen television. Chef explained the dishes while people “ooh’d” and “ahh’d” over the imagery. This part just made me even more frustrated that I didn’t see the presentation because it was all so nice in the photos. The passion in Chef’s voice as he talked about the fine details just made me miss seeing it even more because if I had known I would have paid closer attention as I was eating it. I also couldn’t visually recall all the dishes.
- These were a bonus. They were fresh, and cakey more so than soft and fluffy, but not very sweet at all or coated with sugar.
- This was another bonus. It looked like a non edible decoration and it was a truffle pop fit for Paris Hilton!
- I’ve never seen glitter like this being used on anything edible and I was so surprised it was edible. I have no idea what it’s made from, but it tastes like nothing, but has a finely ground glitter feel. You’ll be all sparkly after because it sticks to everything.