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Saturday, January 15, 2005

The Dark Side of Hyde Park, Sydney

EDIT: The Dark Side of Hyde Park has now closed. You'll have to turn off the lights at home to recreate this experience.

"Welcome to The Dark Side", the maitre'd intoned with more than a hint of a smile playing on his lips.

We had arrived. The time had come. Begone oh boring wholesome dining by illumination. We were here to feast under cover of dark. Pitch darkness. Night-vision-goggle-wearing-waiter-type darkness.

Aaron, our maitre'd with our night-vision-goggled waiter, Patrick.

When I first heard of the concept of dining in the dark, the cynic in me saw a flashy gimmick and cheap lighting bills. But the more I thought about it, and the more people egged me on, well... what could I do but grab my fork torch.

The evening begins in a lit lobby where patrons are handed a glass of champagne whilst they peruse the menu and choose their meals. The menu is an exact replica of the restaurant downstairs, Two Fat Ducks by the Park. Not only does this enable kitchen efficiency, it also means that any patrons who panic in the dark, can relocate (to the safety of light) downstairs.

R was my intrepid dining partner this evening, and continuing the theme of tonight's gastronomic intrepidness, we elected for the Mystery Menu. Three courses to the chef's choosing. We are eating blind. Literally and metaphorically.

Patrick, our waiter, appears from behind heavy black curtains sporting headgear akin to something out of Total Recall. He hands us two paper bibs. We glance at each other momentarily, and then assure him we will put them on inside. I am instructed to place my hand on Patrick's shoulder. The other hand holds aloft my champagne glass. R is behind me. The curtains part. And we are in.

It is black. Pitch black. Patrick is walking slowly but I am terrified there will be obstacles, steps, tables. "There are no steps in here" he assures me, somehow reading my mind. I clumsily bump into a table in response.

My eyes are struggling to make out objects but it is futile. There is nothing which can be seen. Only voices which seem to float from nowhere. How many people are in here? you wonder. But how can you tell?

"Ok, your table is here. Your chair is just... here. Can you feel it?" Patrick asks.

I'm groping in the dark, feeling like a caricature of a blind person. I don't trust anything. I have to make sure I know which way the seat is facing. How far away it is from the table. Exactly where the seat of the chair is, before I ease myself slowly into it.

View of our table

We are sitting next to each other--classroom-style. We cannot help but giggle at the bizarreness of this experience. The restaurant seems remarkably quiet. There are people in here, but conversation is muted. People seem to be leaning into each other with intimate conversations.

We simultaneously explore the table with extensive hand-patting. We need to satiate our curiosity. And assess the risk of breakage. Two knives, two forks... pat pat... napkin... pat pat... that's it. I pat a path to the other end of the table to make sure. I'm conscious of where I've already placed my champagne glass.

A small red light hovers next to us. "Your entrees", a voice announces.

Entree, Mystery Menu

Plates are silently eased before us. I pat cautiously until I find the plate. We instinctively plunge in with our fingers.

"I'm feeling something hard, like it's... fried? And um... sauce..." Cautious lick. "Mmm...tomato-y..." Prod prod. Poke. Sniff. Lick.

I feel like a four-year-old Martian. Cuisine is being dismantled by curious fingers, sniffed cautiously, tasted with curious suspicion. It startles me how hard it is to recognise foods by taste alone. The brain is furiously trying to unscramble a code comprised of texture, smell and taste. It is frustratingly difficult, and a wake-up call to my supposedly-refined tastebuds.

Mains, Mystery Menu

Our mains arrive and there is definitely meat on some kind of bone. Beef? Lamb? Pork? The salivary glands are sending frantic messages to the brain, but the brain merely looks up from its newspaper and shrugs. Some things are easy to identify but others remain tantalisingly elusive.

We find ourselves inadvertently hunching over our plates caveman-style. Soon there is nothing left on the plate--we even wipe our plates clean with our fingers. We've worked out some individual elements but the "big picture" escapes us. I feel somewhat cheated. Like I've seen an artist's colour palette but not the final masterpiece. I realise how important the visual aspect of food presentation is to my appetite, my anticipation, my savouring, my aesthetic indulgence.

At the same time I realise how much I do take my sight for granted. How my tastebuds are lazy. How I really should eat with my fingers more often.

As we wait for dessert, R explores the table again. R finds a mislaid chip in the darkness and immediately offers to share it. It is broken in half and we consume it happily, delighting in this calorific bonus.

I find my eyes are getting tired, straining in futile to make out something--anything--in the darkness. I've also been catching myself closing my eyes whenever I taste things intently. Pointless but out of habit one supposes. My eyes feel exhausted though and droop heavily in the darkness. R, on the other hand, comments that her eyes are even wider open, trying to see better.

Dessert, Mystery Menu

Our desserts finally arrive. One is easy to identify. The other is a little trickier. But they are both good and satisfyingly soothing. Funny that there is much less stress involved when it comes to invisible sweets.

We form a conga train again and follow our waiter as he weaves us in-between tables. The curtain parts. We blink hesitatingly out of our slumbering stupor.

We have seen the light.

A couple of juicy tidbits and did-you-knows:

  • The Sydney Dark Side has been open since 13 November 2004.
  • The Melbourne Dark Side (at 604 St Kilda Rd) has been open since 13 April 2004 (a Black Friday to boot). Within three months of opening, the Melbourne restaurant had a three-week waiting list.
  • The waitstaff require special training to use the night vision goggles which have a magnification of x1 (ie. everything's just a little bit further away than it appears).
  • The Dark Side restaurants in Australia are separate affiliations from the "dining in the dark" concept restaurants in Europe, although they acknowledge them as a source of inspiration.
  • Unlike the European restaurants which use blind waitstaff, Australia is the only country to use night vision goggles. This decision was made in conjunction and consultation with the Royal Institute for the Blind and Seeing Eye Dogs Australia.
  • The Melbourne restaurant have had a few patrons adjourn their meal to the "light side" but so far no-one has done so in Sydney.
  • ~~~
    Overall I would recommend this as a must-do experience. Apart from any gastronomic lessons learnt, it certainly made me reconsider the beauty of all our senses. And besides, stepping out of one's comfort zone is always a good thing.

    For maximum effect, I also recommend you go the whole hog and order the Mystery Menu. And no peeking at the menu beforehand for clues! For this reason, I also suggest that Sydney-siders who think they may wish to go, to look away now... resist temptation and close this entry.

    For others (and the Sydney-siders who have to peek at their Xmas pressies when nobody's watching), we were fortunate enough to get access to plated meals as they left the kitchen (the staff were wonderfully hospitable and extremely accommodating of our incessant curiosity). The most telling thing about the night was our unanimous dismay when we realised what works of art we had been destroying with clumsy fingers and unrefined mouth-shovelling. "Ohhhh... That's what we ate... That looks good... I would've enjoyed that if I'd known it looked like that", we lamented.

    And who said "it all looks the same in your stomach?"

    This is your last chance to look away now...

    A selection of dishes which happened to be plated up as we hovered near the kitchen...

    Peking duck and shitake mushroom crisp wonton stack with red capsicum reduction $14.50

    Prawn, mango and avocado salad with seared scallops and chilli jam $16.50

    Herb-marinated lamb loin on creamy eschalot mash with brocollini, beetroot and port wine jus $28.50

    MSA striploin of beef with crispy potato wafers, asparagus, bell pepper jam and red wine jus $27.50

    Mango and nectarine tart with Persian fairy floss and passionfruit sauce $9.50

    For the record, our mystery menu meal consisted of:

    Peking duck and shiitake mushroom crisp wonton stack with red capsicum reduction
    Coconut-crusted soft shell crab with chilled Asian noodle salad

    MSA striploin of beef with crisp potato wafers, asparagus, bell pepper jam and red win jus
    Parmesan-crusted veal cutlet on a baked apple and potato tart with wilted spinach and red wine jus

    Truffle-infused strawberries with white chocolate ice cream and puff pastry twists
    Chocolate and chilli brulee with wafer biscuits

    The Dark Side of Hyde Park CLOSED
    The Oaks Hyde Park Plaza
    Level 2, 38 College St Sydney
    Tel: 02 93615987
    Bookings essential.

    Mystery menu 2 courses plus glass of champagne $55
    Mystery menu 3 courses plus glass of champagne $65

    You will be enlightened on what you were actually served at the end of your meal.

    Related GrabYourFork posts:
    Things that go chomp in the night, 10 Jan 2005
    Darkness be my friend, 12 Jan 2005
    15 comments - Add some comment love

    posted by Anonymous on 1/15/2005 11:59:00 pm


    • At 1/19/2005 9:46 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      AG - you cracked me up with the photos of your table/meals!! I opened my pressies early and looked at the meal pictures, yummo!! I may have to consider the Melbourne one...

      ~ Michelle.

    • At 1/19/2005 11:32 am, Blogger Niki said…

      Wow - I didn't realise that the Melbourne one was anything but a short-term visit. If it's still operating I'm very tempted.
      Thanks for the heads up!!

    • At 1/19/2005 7:38 pm, Blogger Reid said…

      Hi AG,

      That sure was an interesting experience. If I can get everything together, I should be in Australia in November of this year. If this place is still around, I'd like to secure a reservation. The food looks great, but then again, looks here don't count right? I'm sure that it tasted all that much better.

    • At 1/21/2005 12:52 am, Blogger pinkcocoa said…

      oh gosh, this looks so interesting! You really did have some fun there. Love the dark photos of the food! I couldn't wait to reveal the secret myself so I scrolled right down......Guess I spoilt the surprise for myself! *Oops* I think this might be a very good dining experience for Valentine's day! We are thinking about it. Food looks yummy by the way!

      Oh, before I forget. Didn't see your reply at Fujiya until today! A mail will be on your way soon ;-) And oh, we can foodie guide to Reid when he comes! hehe

    • At 1/21/2005 10:17 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      hey AG, that must have been a mind-blowing experiencing! Thanks for posting; I really enjoyed reading your funny post. I think there was once a similar eat-in-the-dark dining event here in S'pore, but it was a one-time thingy. Guess not many people here are adventurous enough to break out of their comfort zone. I would have loved to try it though. That said, I still feel that it takes the elements of taste, texture, smell, and visual presentation to complete the whole dining experience.


    • At 1/27/2005 12:42 pm, Blogger Ms One Boobie said…

      Hey ..AG,
      Sorry i didn't come back earlier.. had meant too.. but so caught up with BBB (buddha belly baby) my daughter.. chloe and the business.. so here i am.. about 10 days late..:(
      Anyhow.. how adventurous of you .. :) I wouldn't be able to eat in the dark.. i'm terrible.. and not as adventurous.. heh!!

    • At 1/29/2005 1:16 am, Blogger Ms One Boobie said…

      Thanks for your kind compliment for BBB.. :) unfortunately.. she takes after her dada.. ooops.. did i say unfortunately..!!???!! heheheh!!
      Heheh!! seriously though... i don't really think she takes after me.. coz' i was an ugly baby.. truly i was.. :)

    • At 2/01/2005 1:06 am, Blogger pinkcocoa said…

      hey AG
      sorry about the late late mail! Actually I, for one, would love a sydney foodie tour!! Still so many places to explore in Sydney ;-)
      I think we might have to either push back or move forward the Valentine's dine in dark. Oh I like the idea "secretly sick of looking at your partner"!! Greaaaattt. Perfect for Valentine's!

    • At 8/24/2006 1:02 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      I always wonder... is your wine served in those 'teeter-totter' cups meant for uncoordinated 2 year olds?

      I've not been and I guess it's one of those 'do once' type restaurants. However, I'm not even sure if it's still open in Sydney.

    • At 8/26/2006 11:20 am, Blogger ebbye said…

      Is it still open in Sydney????
      I am dying to g!

    • At 9/12/2006 8:34 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      I tried calling, but no one ever picks up! and the main webpage doesn't exist anymore...but the one on citysearch does so I'm not sure whats going on! I'm trying to book, and its coming up soon, so I don't know what to do!

    • At 9/08/2008 9:38 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      Is there any other "dark restaurant" in Australia. I am from Europe and I am interested in these restaurants...

    • At 9/14/2008 2:08 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

      Hi Tereza - There are no other 'dark' restaurants as far as I know. But as I say, perhaps you could host your own dinner party and leave the lights off :)

    • At 1/14/2009 3:49 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      haha that was such a funny post, especially the photos of the meals.
      i was really hoping to grab a bite at this restaurant two years ago but it was nowhere to be seen when i ventured into that area. it sounds like an awesome experience :)

    • At 1/14/2009 9:58 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

      Hi Veg - Glad you enjoyed the post. It was a very memorable evening. I don't think the restaurant lasted very long. A shame really, as I thought it was very eye-opening. Ironic really! lol!


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