Welcome to the dark side of dining.
I’m skeptical by nature, so when I heard of Noir. Dining in the Dark (178 Hai Ba Trung, D1) opening up, I was leery to say the least. The concept is simple: diners choose from a selection of set menus served up by visually impaired waiters… completely in the dark. In my mind, so many things could go wrong: trapped in a dark, claustrophobic space without an easy exit, a restaurant concept more gimmick than substance, a disappointing dining experience cloaked under the guise of social responsibility.
The concept is far from new. Commercial dine in the dark establishments have been around for decades, notably in Europe and America. Closer to home, there are/were similar concept restaurants in Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Kuala Lumpur. What I wanted to know was: Would the experience leave me more empathetic to visually impaired people, ostensibly the reason why this type of restaurant was first created? Is it true that other senses are heightened if one, especially the one we use the most to gather information, is taken away? And simply, would the food be any good?
On the matter of fostering empathy, I’m undecided about the takeaway. While the experience does leave one with a newfound respect for how nimbly the wait staff navigate in the pitch dark environment (all are visually impaired to some degree), I found myself too wrapped up in the logistics of simply feeding myself ― fiddling with silverware and trying to remember exactly where everything was located on the table, not to mention actually getting food to my mouth without making a mess ― and dealing with the disorienting feeling of seeing nothing while having your eyes wide open, to really be in a frame of mind conducive to thinking seriously about what it would be like to be visually impaired. For that, you’re better off doing something like Bangkok’s Dialogue in the Dark, a darkened exhibition space broken up into various environments that a visually impaired guide helps you navigate. There, the confusion, the terror and yes, the empathy, are very real. That said, Noir’s wait staff were excellent and proactive, always close by and ready to join in on the conversation if you wanted. Secondly, it’s widely believed that your other senses compensate for any that are no longer available. While I believe this is true in the long-term, I’m not sure my taste buds would’ve taken on superhuman sensitivity in the short time it took to eat dinner. However, without the assistance of visual clues (and the distraction of Instagram), I definitely found myself eating much more deliberately in an effort to identify textures and flavors in a game of I-know-what-that-is-but-can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-it. Thirdly, would the food be any good? After all, that is the reason we go out to restaurants. In the dimly lit lounge prior to locking up mobile phones and any other potential sources of light, diners choose from one of three set menus (East, West and Vegetarian) with four or five tasting portions per course (starter, main, dessert). Purposely, not much more information is provided. In that sense, diners are forced to place a measure of trust in Noir to deliver a well thought out, well executed meal.
Thankfully, owners Vu Anh Tu and Germ Doornbos bring with them years of fine dining experience from managing outlets in places like the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, Ly Club and the InterContinental Asiana Saigon. I interpreted the beautifully decorated restored villa that makes up the lounge area a good omen of the dining experience to come. Executive Chef Ngo Thanh Tuan has worked the kitchens of Saigon notables along the lines of Caravelle, Mövenpick and Chill Sky Bar. That much restaurant experience on the part of all three men shines through in the food, both in quality and preparation, playing with textures, flavors, smells and shapes. Not to give too much away, but I found notes of cappuccino crème, beetroot oil and wasabi in the most delightfully unexpected places. After dinner, diners are able to review the menu (which will change every two months) and see how many flavors they were able to correctly identify.
All things considered, I wholeheartedly recommend the Noir. Dining in the Dark experience, especially at its fairly reasonable price point (VND480,000 -VND560,000++ for the three-course menu, VND350,000 -VND420,000++ for any two courses, drinks priced separately). The idea behind Noir is definitely novel enough, particularly in Saigon, to be buzzworthy. The wait staff I talked to seemed thrilled to be given the opportunity to work in such a new and challenging environment and just days after opening, were handling the crowds with skill and tact. While it remains to be seen whether this type of concept dining will be able to draw in repeat customers, the immersive experience itself (plan on at least an hour and a half from start to finish) is one that everyone should have at least once. No matter what your conclusion, the Noir experience is nothing if not memorable, one you’ll likely find yourself thinking and talking about for days.
Images by Ngoc Tran