“Dining in the Dark” has always been a concept that fascinated and, in a way, terrified me. Almost a bucket list item, really, and one full of questions: Is it true that, with your sense of sight disabled, the food’s flavors and aromas come forth in a stronger, more nuanced way? And even more, I wondered, unless covered in a full body bib, how could you not come out of a pitch-black three-course meal looking like a Jackson Pollock painting?
Now, in Hongdae’s Le Noir at the Vault, you can find the answers to these questions through a Seoul-based restaurant and, surprisingly, not destroy your budget. Le Noir is a “blind dining” experience attached to the Vault, one of Seoul’s quickly multiplying escape room concepts. Here, diners go through their entire meal in complete darkness. There are two differences from other blind dining experiences you may have heard or read about around the world in this case: first, the experience is not entirely upscale – the mainly salad-pasta-steak menu has single dishes priced in the mid-teens as well as three-course sets (a better choice) starting at 35,000. Second, the servers are not “blind,” unlike in some blind dining restaurants, but rather navigate the dining room with help of night-vision apparatus.
Upon entering Le Noir’s lobby (which does have light), there is a choice of pre-ordering specific food from the menu or choosing the “Chef’s Surprise,” a three-course meal that changes depending on the day and the requests or allergies of the patron. There is also another restriction before the meal can begin: all electronics, even watches with lights, must be shut away in a locker for the entirety of the meal.
As for my friend and myself, the sightless, distraction-less meal goes largely as follows:
– Seated in the dark dining room, our hands are guided to both a stack of napkins and a call button, to be pressed when help is needed or if we want to leave. I imagine having to press said button to call the server when I inevitably dump an entire plate of mystery spaghetti on my lap, but luckily, this situation never comes to fruition. I neurotically line my lap with layers of a dozen or so square napkins just in case.
– After five minutes of nervous giggling and practicing picking up utensils (no chopsticks, luckily), the first course of our “chef’s surprise” menu arrives: a salad. We are stunned to discover that even though this is blind dining, the plates are shared “family style”, and I begin to worry about accidentally stabbing my companion with the fork. We bump hands several times, but fortunately, no stabbing occurs.
– The eating is clumsy at best. At least half the time, I pierce what I think is a mound of lettuce and bring it to my mouth, only to find that nothing is attached to my fork. I search my lap and the table in front of me, but in most cases, the reality is that I haven’t actually picked up any food from the plate. Occasionally I come up with a surprise, such as a heaping solitary mound of ricotta cheese. The dressing seems tangier than usual, but I find myself wishing there were more little surprises to find among the lettuce leaves.
– A second course is delivered and we feel around frantically for the plate, inevitably sticking our paws straight into the sauce-covered dish. Pasta? Pasta. Oh no. Surprisingly, though, this dish proves easier than the salad. All of my years of Italian upbringing have prepared me well to twirl pasta in the dark. It’s pretty easy for us to deduce that the pasta is a simple carbonara, and I find myself wondering: does blind dining not only make bold flavors a bit bolder, but plain flavors a bit plainer? Still, the basic experience of the pasta is fun and the occasional surprise mushroom heightens the taste.
– A third course arrives and is difficult to locate alongside the salad and pasta. By now, we’ve resorted to partially using our hands, and dread that there’s some sort of night-vision CCTV over which viewers are watching us eat like heathens covered in sauce. The dish ends up being a chicken steak, which, while intensely difficult to find and cut evenly, is tender and has a delightfully strong sort of BBQ sauce. The roasted vegetables on the side turn out to be our favorite part of the meal, partially for the adventure of not knowing what we are picking up each time.
– We clean the plates between us entirely (or so we think). As a final step, we are given a sheet of paper and a marker each and asked to try drawing something in the dark. My friend says this is her favorite part of the experience. She draws a complex scene that will end up looking like a modern-art masterpiece, while I timidly go for writing messages and drawing simple Christmas trees and snowmen sans eyes and details.
– At what would be the time to be guided out, we ask for the lights to be turned on so that we can see the aftermath. I’m shocked to find that the table does NOT look like a mini-apocalypse scene, save for the napkins scattered all over the floor and table and a few spots or streaks on our clothing. We are also surprised to find that the salad has almost entirely eluded us: the majority of it is still present and pristine, though we had assumed to have finished all the food completely.
Back in the lighted lobby, we reflected on our meals over some espresso martinis (highly recommended). As an overall, the experience of blind dining is definitely worth it at least once, and Le Noir offers a cost-efficient space to try this. Having the surprise menu is also a must if you are at all adventurous. And does dining blind offer a heightened sense of taste? Well, we’re not sure. The food was definitely tasty, though we were torn: in some ways, the basic nature of the dishes and flavors made the eating more comfortable, yet, since we were meant to savor intensified flavors through this experience, we wished that the ingredients would have been more varied and the flavors even stronger. This is perhaps something that can be easily addressed when giving the chef requests beforehand, though. Also, while the menu isn’t that adventurous, the cocktails are. Many of the ones we tried were custom-made concoctions without names but with strong bite and flavor. These were even better when sampled in the dark room (and helped to relieve the tension). The owner explained that he particularly likes mixtures of coffee and alcohol, so the “Spiked Coffee” portion of the menu is especially well done.
And if nothing else, this is a great way to be forced into having an hour or two of pure conversation, without a mobile phone as a crutch. I have a feeling that in Korea, this part might make people more nervous than the actual dining in the dark.
Le Noir is attached to The Vault, an escape room experience, and a deal currently allows diners at the restaurant to attempt the escape room as well (reservations recommended). Going forward, the restaurant also plans to offer events such as a “group dating” night, allowing participants to get to know one another without superficial distractions.
The bottom line: Though the menu is basically similar to most other restaurants in the price range, you should go here even just for a Seoul blind dining experience. It would be great for a date or a catch-up session with friends or family, and even better when combined with an escape room endeavor.
Just bring a bib.
Find more information on Le Noir’s menu or location via their website, thevaultkr.com.
Le Noir at The Vault: 02-338-8639; B2 NS Tower, Hongdae, Mapo-gu, Seoul; 11:00 – midnight daily.