Squishy, smooth and cool. That’s how it feels as I bring the food to my mouth. At first, I taste something familiar, but as I query my taste buds for more info, I detect balsamic vinegar and the slightly spongy, creamy flavor of buffalo mozzarella. I’m having something called “Dinner in the Dark,” six courses with wine pairings, and, along with a hundred other guests, I am enjoying my meal blindfolded.
The movement is actually worldwide, having been started in Zurich, Switzerland by a blind man named George Spielman. The first restaurant, Blindekuh (Blind Cow), featured not only blindfolds for the diners, but blind waiters. The concept spread to Moscow, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Toronto and Tel Aviv, among others, and to the United States, where you can now find restaurants in LA, San Francisco, New York, Dallas, San Diego, and — where my meal is being served — Miami.
The restaurant, Catharsis (on Calle Ocho in Little Havana), was featured on the Food Network and has been offering these unusual dining experiences for three years. Catharsis’ owner is a psychologist, Dr. Vivian Gonzalez-Diaz, who has much more than a passing interest in a gimmicky concept – she sees spirituality in most everything, including dinner. To have a catharsis (loosely defined as a release of pent-up emotions), she says you need to bring in spirituality. Getting people to connect in a new way, to be mindful of something so ordinary as a Friday night dinner out, is a doorway to more awareness.
So between courses, we are treated to readings by Dr. Gonzalez-Diaz, which include a history of dark dining but also delve into the concepts of using your other senses to experience food, to see beauty in everything, to interact with things in a new way, and to concentrate your inner self on new experiences. This mindfulness enables you to taste your food differently because you can’t see, which is the sense you have come to rely on almost exclusively to tell you what you are eating.
Dr. Gonzalez-Diaz also encourages you to get up (carefully, since otherwise you might knock over your wine!) and move or dance to the live singer whose guitar music is as present as the meal.
When I need to use the bathroom, I raise my hand and a waiter escorts me to the hall, where I am instructed to remove my blindfold. Suddenly, the ladies’ room looks strange, unfamiliar – I see this ordinary space anew and recognize that I often take things so much for granted I forget to really see them. This is a true gift of the evening.
We also have a little food trivia, because ingredients are included for their antioxidant or other health benefits. Guests learn the “why” of what they are eating, and the chef explains each course in detail after we consume it, with diners enthusiastically calling out the names of the ingredients they recognize and groaning as items are announced that, though perfectly ordinary (like zucchini strips) no one guessed correctly.
It’s time for dessert, and I gingerly find the ceramic edge that tells me the plate is in front of me. I prod the warm, rough surface of whatever is on it (I gave up my fork around course two, encouraged by Dr. Gonzalez-Diaz’s remarks about the tactile experience I was missing). There’s something soft and something sticky on top on the pancake-like surface, which feels delightful under my fingers, normally limited to the metal handle of whatever utensil I am eating with. I use my knife to cut a piece (not as hard as it seems) and slide it into my mouth. A little moan escapes as I savor the flooding of my senses, the warmth, the melting sweetness, the sheer emotion of a single bite.
The next day, breakfast in my kitchen seems more important somehow, slower, more deliberate. I am grateful for this mundane example of spirituality in my life. Three times a day, a chance to be more aware, to have, not just a meal, but a catharsis.