Jan Norris: Food and Florida

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Dining in the Dark at SoLita – an Enlightening Experience

September 26th, 2011 · No Comments

SoLita Delray a perfect setting for Dining in the Dark dinners

OK: I was all set to dismiss a “Dining in the Dark” dinner as novelty – a straightforward gimmick for bored diners.

For those unfamiliar – at a Dining in the Dark meal, diners are served several courses in total darkness, without a menu.

A few of my friends weighed in: “What’s the point if we eat with our eyes first?” “Isn’t sight one of the three primary senses for dining?” “So this is a true blind tasting?”

Many eat this way because they must

I was quick to point out that people who are blind enjoy and appreciate food and wines; the sight of food enhances it in one way, yes, but without sight, you’re forced to experience the sensations of food through other senses.

But Steven Dapuzzo of SoLita in Delray Beach’s Pineapple Grove was quick to change my mind about the gimmickry even before we started.

“It’s what I thought, too. I went to one in Fort Lauderdale at Market 17 just to check it out. I thought, ‘It’s a gimmick – this is going to be silly.’ I was totally surprised. Because you can’t see and you’re not told what you’re eating, you have to think. Your palate doesn’t automatically get those visual clues from your brain, and you don’t have a preconceived notion of how a food is supposed to taste. So it really does taste different.”

Would these all be foods off his regular SoLita menu we would recognize? He smiled. “Some of the dishes are on our menu, but most aren’t.”

Total darkness

After gathering for drinks (including the very tasty housemade sangria) at the bar, a group of us were led to the main SoLita lounge through a staging area encased in a double set of black curtains. I joined a table of three for the dinner. Tablemates Mike and Tisa are newcomers to Delray; Linda, a longtime Delray resident, was a regular at SoLita, and was eager to try this out.

The room is naturally dim with black walls and low violet lighting as a dance club. It was completely blacked out tonight by heavy curtains, floor to ceiling. Electric candles on the tables that lit our way to our tables were snuffed before the five-course meal began.

Christo, our service captain, explained where wines – served in stable rocks glasses – would be placed, relative to our silverware. We were given a charger on which all our other plates would be placed, a reference plate, so to speak. Christo and another food runner would be fitted with night-vision goggles. “They look ridiculous, I know,” he joked. They also provided him no depth of field, so he, too, had limited vision and stepped cautiously all night.

He had participated in the dry run the night before. “I think it’ll go pretty smooth tonight,” he said. “We didn’t spill anything on anybody.”

Just in case, there were two napkins – one to be used as a bib – for each guest. We were encouraged to eat with our hands. “The tactile experience is part of it – touching your foods.”

We were asked again to name any foods we couldn’t eat, told that we wouldn’t know the menu till after the course was finished, told to shut off all phones and watches that had lights – and then it was lights out.

Touch, smell and taste

As our eyes attempted to adjust to the solid blackness, dance music from the ’70s cranked up. “Are we supposed to dance, too?” a guest wondered. “Maybe pole dancing,” another quipped.

The first course arrived, with the waiter announcing himself before he approached, then tapping diners’ shoulders to signal whose plate was being set down. Christo explained it was a cold dish.

I reached for my fork first, then realizing I couldn’t tell what I was aiming for, reached in the bowl with my fingers as the other diners were doing. There was little smell on this – a light herby, earthy flavor was all I could get.

My first bite was of a large sugar-coated nut – walnut or pecan, I wasn’t clear as it was more sugar than nut and very crisp. Other diners hit what they determined to be pears, or beets first. “Beets!” was the consensus. I would have liked it if the diners had waited for everyone to be served and a few bites taken before shouting out menu guesses; the suggestions colored the way we tasted.

The beets, chopped in small cubes, were identifiable by flavor, however – sweet, slightly earthy, and underdone so they had a texture like a firm pear. Others talked of a citrus flavor and basil – I couldn’t detect this – only a light acid, as the beets and nuts were overwhelmingly sweet.

“I just got a walnut,” Linda said. “I want more!”

“I don’t really like beets,” Tisa said. “But I ate a few. I wouldn’t have eaten them at all if I had seen them.”

Textures abound

Time seemed to stretch longer between courses than we expected – or was this only because we couldn’t see any action, read our watches or do anything but make conversation? It was a dimensional illusion. Looking around in a restaurant as you’re eating, taking in the plates, the decor and other diners, time goes more quickly.

Now, we joked about the disco music (“Are they going to light up the disco ball at least?”) and played trivia – “Who is this? The Brothers Gibb! How could you not remember that?” “Who was the actress who Tony Manero danced with in Saturday Night Fever.” (Hint: she later had a short-lived sitcom.)

Touch tells little

The next course was flash-fried shrimp, served with roasted peppers (easy to guess), a house tartar sauce and a herbed verde drizzle. You couldn’t tell by touching exactly what they were; the texture was like a sausage at first, then the shrimp flavor came through. The verde sauce was piquant; the tartar had a creamy consistency that was a first guess of aioli – similar.

A pan-seared snapper followed, served with a cool salad of farro, cucumber, tomato and onion, drizzled with a blood orange vinaigrette. The vinaigrette was stronger now, and easily recognizable.

The farro stumped everyone, though I finally picked up on it realizing I was in an Italian restaurant. The chewy Old World grain is popular in Italy and chefs here have been using it. The fish was more difficult to eat with our hands; by this time, many had figured out how to use the fork with our second hand as a food guide.

Meat: Wrong answer – it’s poultry, sort of

The meat course came, though we weren’t told it was meat. A sliced seared ostrich was topped with a berry demi-glaze, and served with a potato pancake and crispy Brussel sprouts.

The meat tasted like medium rare beef, though only slightly tougher than sirloin. Beef was the first guess, and promptly nixed by Christo. Someone guessed pork. Taste told us it wasn’t pork or lamb.

I’ve eaten ostrich several times – I love it, actually, and guessed this was it, though it also tasted like lion, another meat I’ve had twice before. Ostrich is considerably easier to get than lion – and available locally from a ranch in Loxahatchee.

This was the dinner-seller for me: blind tasting something you wouldn’t ordinarily eat because you just don’t “think” you’d like it, as several people said (only one other guest had ever eaten it).

Dessert was sweet

Oreo zeppoles – a fascinating twist on the norm, and a boozy Jack Daniels bread pudding finished off our meal – we couldn’t get the zeppoles, but someone guessed “doughnuts” – a close cousin in this case.

The Dining in the Dark meals are scheduled every other Wednesday – Dapuzzo said all have been successful – and the guests return, so they must agree with me – it’s an enlightening experience.

Cost is $59 for a five-course meal; add $20 for a flight of wines to go with it, chosen by the house. The menu will change each time.

SoLita Delray

  • 25 N. Second Ave., Delray Beach
    561-899-0888; solitaitalian.com
    Open for dinner daily from 5 p.m.
    Dining in the Dark served alternate Wednesdays – reservations required

Tags: The Eat Beat: Restaurant News

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