Friday, May 22, 2009

Finger food

Last Saturday we went out for our big too-many-birthdays-in-May dinner. Last year we went to an amazing local restaurant that I hear has sadly since closed due to a problem of some kind with the location. This year we went for something a little bit different - dinner at the Blindekuh restaurant in Basel.

The Blindekuh is a restaurant where you eat in a pitch-black room, served by blind and semi-sighted staff. We went with Dani and Steph and Scott and Sarah - two friends visiting us from the US.

Upon arrival at the restaurant, your first task is to put all purses, phones, coats, bags, and anything that lights up in one of the lockers in the lobby. Next, you are presented with the menu while still in the lobby and told to study it carefully and memorize what you want as there will be no more referring to it later in the meal - this includes remembering your wines and drinks. We thought this would cause a problem until we went into the dining room and realized the darkness was unnerving enough without adding the disorienting effects of the couple bottles of wine that usually go with dinner here.

If you didn't want to order your courses from the menu, you could also choose the surprise menu (carnivore or vegetarian) - which most of our party selected. I was relieved to hear there would be no sea or lake life as part of the surprise menu.

Choices made and memorized, we took one last trip to the bathroom (important!) and settled on the couches and chairs in the lobby to wait to be taken to our table. When it came our turn, we were instructed to "form a Polynesian" - a conga line. This is how we were "shown" to our table. We passed through several layers of blackout curtains as we twisted down a long hallway that doubled back on itself repeatedly before we finally arrived at our table. Sitting down when you can't see the seats is really hard.

Once seated, we all began spidering our hands across the table, finding our napkins, two forks, two knives, spoon, variety of glassware, and strangers sitting next to us (whoops). Plates of crostini were placed for us to snack on as we waited to order. We started off with a round of the house appertif - a delicious fruity-tasting concoction we sipped as our eyes tried to adjust to the darkness...something they would continue to attempt throughout the course of our meal.

I can't even begin to describe exactly how dark it is. I tried to raise my hand up in front of my face to look at it and I managed to smack myself in the nose. For 2.5 hours, we saw nothing except one tiny blip of orange light from some mystery electronic device. Later in the meal, we spoke longingly about that light. Because of the profound darkness, I can't tell you how big the restaurant was, how many tables there were, or if they were all full, though it certainly sounded busy. As we walked to our table, I had a moment where my heart tightened in my chest and I questioned whether I would be able to stand this darkness for the duration of a meal. I gripped Steph's shoulders tighter and reminded myself of how lonely I would be in the lobby if I turned back.

A few minutes after we finished the crostini (at least we think we finished them) our waitress came over and, in German, introduced herself as Helen. Should we need anything throughout the course of our meals (drink refills, an extra fork, a helping hand to the bathroom) we were to call out to her and she would come to us. Our first chance to call Helen was when everyone at our table received their first course but poor little Miz K! As the other sat and explored their plates, I fiddled with my napkin and arranged my forks. Just a few minutes later, though, Helen was back with my plate and I eagerly dug in.

I picked up my fork and stabbed at my plate - nothing. Stab again - my entire salad. This is going to be difficult. Next try, I rested my left hand on the edge of my plate and used my fingers to poke and prod at the food on my fork until I had a mouthful. After a couple bites in this manner, I abandoned the fork and gleefully drug my fingers back and forth across the plate, savoring eating without utensils or nasty looks. Marinated veggies, garlic cheese mousse, salad, crunchy bread - it was amazing. Touching the food and smelling it and tasting it was so much fun. It was also easier to identify the food than I though it would be, though not knowing what taste to expect until something is actually in your mouth is a really odd sensation.

Throughout the meal, we would occasionally hear small bursts of tinkling music coming from other tables - the sound of small music boxes being opened. When you can't see, you find yourself listening so much closer to everything around you, and these little bursts of sound were so sweet and welcome against the backdrop of conversations and clinking tableware.

Soon, our second course came out. While most at our table were back to attempts with forks and knives, I was sticking with my hands - it was more fun. Main course for the carnivores was a decent-sized, even big for Switzerland, piece of meat, green beans in a bacon and sun-dried tomato sauce, and small roasted potatoes. We debated back and forth, finally deciding the meat was pork, only to find out as we left that it was actually a steak. We attributed our mistake to the steak being a bit more cooked through than most of us take our red meat - it was still very tasty, just a slightly different texture. As the main course continued, I sat gnawing away at the steak in my hands and listening as my tablemates, one after the other, abandoned their knives and also used their fingers. At some point, we all giggled at the clank of a fork hitting the floor as a man at a nearby table muttered a brief German curse while trying to retrieve the errant piece of cutlery.

Sometime after the main course, but before dessert, a large group of young-sounding girls either arrived or got up to leave (no way to know) and proceeded to scream and giggle and squawk through the dining room, receiving several very Swiss "SHHHHHHHHHHHH"es when the shrieking got too out of control.

Dessert was a fascinating mix of several small bites and left us all guessing until we finally got our menu cheat sheet. In the chilled bowls were a small square of mango lime panna cotta, a fluffy mound of white mousse with cranberries, frozen banana mascarpone balls coated in chocolate and bits of fresh fruit and leaves of mint. Once the meal was over and we were ready to go, Helen returned to walk us to the door. We went back through the blackout curtains and stood in the semi-darkened hallway for a few minutes to give our eyes a brief period of adjustment. We stepped into the dimly lit lobby and it was the same shock you get when leaving a movie theater on a summer day - it hurt. We stumbled and blinked for a moment before rushing, en masse, to the bathrooms. Thus relieved, we retrieved our belongings, settled the bill, and discussed when we could return.

I highly recommend this restaurant if you find yourself in Basel or Zurich and you're feeling a bit adventurous. If you come visit us and want to go, just say "mooooo!"


sarah said...

I've been waiting for this blog post! It sounds amazing. Did you ever find out what the music boxes were for?

Miz K said...

If you let them know ahead of time you had a birthday, you got a music box! Alas, we didn't know until we arrived... such a neat idea, though.

sarah said...

aw!! well, next time you go, make sure it's someone's birthday!

I wonder how many people freak out there and flee.

Jürg said...

hahaha, that sounds like a great adventure! :)

i always wanted to go there, but never managed to do so yet.

madlion said...

For those who want to go to the "blindekuh", basel is much easier to go there.
I've been in the blind cow in Zurich, where you have to make a reservation around half a year before.
I even had to make a reservation a 3/4 year before we went there.

Miz K said...

Yeah, 6-9 months out for a reservation is just crazy! I think we planned 2 months ahead for Basel with no problem.

SquidViscous said...

I want to see pictures! ;)

Miz K said...

Jen said...

Wow, what a unique and eye-opening (yes, pun intended) experience. Just a taste of everyday life for the vision-impaired I guess! Thanks for sharing!