Review of @willowonwascana “Dining in the Dark” Event #yqr @willowwineguy @mecheftim

When I was in Montreal for a conference in 2009, I got to have the very cool experience of dining at “O Noir”, a restaurant where you eat your entire meal completely in the dark.

Because of the unique nature of restaurants like this, you tend to only encounter them in larger cities that can support them as an ongoing venture – Montreal has one as do Vancouver and Toronto (and I’ve heard of some other larger cities across North America and around the world that do as well.)

So I was very excited when I saw that one of Regina’s top local restaurants, The Willow on Wascana, would be offering a “Dining in the Dark” event, based on this concept, every Monday in March.

When we originally called to book our reservation for the start of March, the first evening was already booked solid.  But in hindsight, we were probably better off changing our reservation to the end of the month as that gave them a few weeks to work out any kinks that would probably arise doing an event of this type (for instance, when we booked our reservation, the person on the phone said “It’s probably crazy to do this in a restaurant that’s basically made of floor to ceiling glass windows. But I’ve always wanted to do something like this, so why not?” and I wondered if they made any tweaks to their light-blocking system from week-to-week?)

Shea and I headed out last night at 6pm, stopping at a local brewery for a quick pint. Doors for the event were at 6:30pm and the meal was at 7pm.  When we arrived, we were greeted in the entranceway briefly then led through a dark curtain and, after confirming our reservation, were taken to our seats.

Intentionally or not, this start time worked out really well as the room (with windows taped over with dark paper) still had enough faint light coming in which allowed you to get your bearings before the sun went down and it got fully dark.

The price for the meal was $50 per person and a flight of wine to accompany each of the four courses was an additional $25. We had debated whether to have the wine flight but we each ordered it and were glad we did as it added a lot to the meal – both because the wine went really well with each course but also because, after each course, Dave, who is The Willow’s managing partner (and resident “wine guy”) and Tim, who is the Chef would come out and, still in the darkened room, explain to everyone what we had just ate and drank.

That was one of the main differences I noticed between O Noir who do this as a regular restaurant and The Willow who did this as a special series.  At O Noir, we ate a three course meal but we picked each course from a menu before going into the darkened restaurant.  Each course offered one “Mystery Choice” as well as some standards (the salad could be garden or caesar or a mystery choice; the entree could be beef or chicken or a mystery choice.) At The Willow, everyone was being served the same thing (unless of course you’d specified a dietary restriction) and every course was a surprise.

If you’re a picky eater or had some nervousness about certain foods, this could be a bad thing (and the odd joke from Dave about whether we enjoyed the “calf brains” or not may have frightened some guests even more!) but Shea and I truly enjoyed each and every course, even when we weren’t 100% sure what we were eating until after they gave their explanation.

I can’t remember exactly what we had but the first course was leeks, the second course was duck breast with African spices and chickpeas, the third course was bison tenderloin and the final dessert course was a mixture of banana/chocolate/toffee (and I am in no way doing justice to what these foods actually were or how good they tasted – imagine reading a high end foodie magazine and then adding words such as “slow roasted ginger sauce” and “charred kale with balsamic reduction” and you’ll have a better idea of what type of food was on the menu.)  😉

(Oh, on that note, I asked the waiter and he said they have been changing the menu from week-to-week although there have also been some common elements.  Good to know for anyone planning to go multiple times.)

What else?  There were only a couple minor accidents – someone tipped over a water pitcher on their table and the table beside us had one wine glass knocked over which broke on the floor.  (In Montreal, in their housekeeping intro before we went into the darkened room, they suggested we always keep our glasses at the top right of our plates so we could always “find” them but we didn’t get a similar instruction at The Willow and that’s perhaps why these accidents happened.  On the other hand, a table near us that ordered multiple rounds of drinks plus the wine flight never knocked over a thing – I think they might’ve been culinary professionals themselves!) 😉

At O Noir and similar restaurants, one of the cool things is that all the waiting staff are also visually impaired so they are employing a group that has one of the highest unemployment rates in Canada.  At The Willow, they used their regular staff (as you’d expect) but that meant it was more of a challenge for staff than customers in many ways since staff were constantly moving between the bright lights of the kitchen and total darkness of the dining room.

Staff did have not-too-bright glow bands on their wrists to help prevent collisions and they’d also marked the walkways and some corner chairs with a small piece of glow-in-the-dark tape as well, also to help both staff and customers with navigation.

(Side note: I made my way to the washroom once before the light was totally gone – washrooms were mildly illuminated with tea lights that were strategically placed which was much appreciated but I still had to take a second after coming out of the washroom to the near darkness of the dining room for my eyes to adjust.)

It helped that The Willow was a restaurant I’d been to before so I knew the general layout of the room (and, as mentioned, there was enough light when we first arrived that you’d get a sense of the room, even if you’d never been before.)  When we went to O Noir, it was much more disorienting as you had no idea how big the room was, how close other tables were or pretty much anything else you’d normally pick up visually.

What else?  I think that’s the gist of it – “Dining in the Dark” has obviously been very popular as they’ve extended the idea into April (but on Tuesday nights rather than Mondays) so if you haven’t gone, I’d encourage you to give it a try.

It was a fun evening – great food, amazing experience and the type of thing that you normally have to travel to a much bigger city to enjoy so why not take advantage of something like this so close to home?

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