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The Weekly Eater

Sightless dining challenges tastebuds

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Shanae Kamakawiwoole, above, prepares to take the blind wine-tasting challenge at Formaggio Grill in Kailua.
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Formaggio Grill in Kailua challenges foodies to distinguish flavors without the benefit of sight.
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Formaggio Grill in Kailua challenges foodies to distinguish flavors without the benefit of sight.
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Formaggio owner Wes Zane helps Kristopher Schlund lift his blindfold so he can see how well he did on identifying the wines. Schlund guessed one of three wines correctly.

It’s said that if you lose one sense, other senses make up for it. That turned out to be true at Formaggio Grill in ways expected and unexpected.

The restaurant has been testing a fun monthly series called Dining in the Dark, which has proved to be a hit with culinary adventurers willing to put their tastebuds to the test by eating dinner blindfolded for a very sensual, multisensory experience.

Dining in the Dark at Formaggio Grill

» Where: 305 Hahani St.
» When: 7 p.m. first Monday monthly; next meal on Sept. 6
» Cost: $75 per person, with wine; menu varies
» Call: 263-2633
» Also: Groups of eight or more can be accommodated on weekdays, provided the private room is not booked.

That does not suggest it’s romantic in any way. Instead, the dining room is more like a laboratory and you’re a blind scientist poking and prodding at your plate to figure out what substance is in front of you, whether animal, vegetable or mineral.

The concept started not as a commercial gimmick, but as a social awareness movement in Europe about five years ago to benefit agencies serving the visually impaired. People were served by blind waiters in complete darkness to experience what it’s like to be without sight.

Once it crossed the pond, it became another form of entertainment. A whole organization has sprung up around Dark Dining Projects (darkdiningprojects.com), with related dance and artistic projects based on nonvisual perception.

Of course, the competitive nature of our society has also turned dining in the dark into a challenge to see just who really knows their foodstuffs.

I thought that guessing the ingredients would be a breeze, but Formaggio Grill owner Wes Zane said people get basics wrong all the time. After erring himself, he said the experience made him realize how, with his busy schedule, he’s forced to eat quickly, without really focusing on what he’s eating. He said it’s made him realize how important it is to slow down and savor meals.

I thought we’d at least be able to set our sights on the surroundings, but instead, we were blindfolded in the main dining room and led by hand into a back room. (For sanitary reasons, your blindfold goes home with you.)

The walk and being seated is the scariest part of the experience as you feel your way around table and chair to avoid plopping your butt on the ground. Next, we felt our way around the tabletop, so as not to knock over wine glasses set there for tastings that accompanied each dish.

Staffers promise nothing "scary" on the menu, but scary is relative. That’s why this kind of meal tends to attract brave diners. I usually don’t get turned down for dinner dates, but on this one I learned how much people value their sense of sight and knowing exactly what they’re eating.

What was strange was that other diners, because they couldn’t see, seemed to think others around them were deaf, so they were yelling across the table to each other. Everyone had to increase their decibel levels accordingly to be heard, so by evening’s end the conversations were deafening. Without blindfolds and the excitement connected with guessing what is on their plates, people tend to converse more sedately.

No one is told what is going to be on the menu during a particular event, but while taking reservations, staffers note allergies and dietary restrictions to make substitutions where needed. They also make sure everything on the plates is edible, avoiding such hazards as fish with bones.

Then, at the end of the meal, the blindfolds are whipped off for the big reveal of the room, the other diners and plates showcasing the meal just eaten. I don’t know if the restaurant purposely tries to trip people up, or if any meal would be challenging when blindfolded. I suspect a little of both. In figuring out the various dishes, it helps to think beyond your traditional concept of what a dinner entails.

For instance, the first bite was an amuse bouche that I correctly identified as a chocolate truffle with Pop Rocks, which ordinarily might have served as a delightful mignardise, or bite-sized dessert, at the end of the meal. Tricky!

Waiters did their best to guide us in approaching the various dishes. For this dish, for instance, they announced a small bite at the center of the plate, indicating we could pick it up with our fingers. The first approaches were difficult. You have to determine whether you do want to touch, at the risk of gravied or sauced fingertips, or whether to properly apply fork and knife, or to go caveman and stab it.

I usually poked around a while to get a sense of texture and size, and how easy or difficult it might be to cut.

THE NEXT DISH was also tricky. The first bite tasted strongly of pork, but the texture was wrong. It was squishy, not meaty. That got me thinking it was rare-seared fish, but then there was the undeniable pork flavor. Then I figured it was fish wrapped in some kind of pork strip that might have been bacon, but with more of a ham flavor, and I settled on prosciutto. It was served on some kind of puree that I stubbornly decided was garlic-truffle mashed potatoes, although, given its more watery nature, it turned out I should have reflected on this a bit more.

The dish turned out to be prosciutto-wrapped ahi with a celery root puree and truffle nage.

Next up was another stumper, some kind of chewy bread. "Why?" I thought. There were also blueberries and sliced strawberries, which started me thinking about breakfast and French toast. On top of it was unmistakably foie gras. Some people couldn’t figure this dish out because they’d never had goose liver before, and certainly not on French toast. Luckily, they liked it, because it’s not for everyone, whether for dietary or ethical reasons.

It’s funny how small the piece of foie gras was, at about 2 inches, when I got a chance to look at it after the meal was over. As rich as it is, while I was eating it, it felt palm-sized.

The next dish was obviously braised shortribs on mushroom risotto, but what tripped me up was something like a succotash of tiny diced veggies sitting on top of the shortribs. Some pieces were very crunchy and some were squishy, so I guessed broccoli stems and corn. These turned out to be carrots and asparagus. I was surprised I didn’t get the carrot flavor because I really dislike the sweetness of cooked carrots. Maybe I missed it because I always avoid eating them.

A friend later asked me how I could miss the distinctive asparagus flavor. I’m thinking that cut as small as it was, and stirred with the carrots, it didn’t have the pungency you’d experience with the whole stalk. Anyway, she’s one to talk. She was one of those who turned down the opportunity to test herself.

Dessert was obviously a creme brulee, but I was not successful with the specifics. It was creamy on top and combined with the flavor of the brulee, I was thinking it was coconut cream, but it turned out to be a pistachio brulee topped with whipped cream.

Here, I’m thinking artificial notes in the pistachio tasted like coconut, in the way that artificial flavors rarely come close to the real thing. But, once the blindfolds came off and I was told it was pistachio and could see the pale green color and taste it, pistachio was obvious. That seems to demonstrate how much we rely on multiple clues in our everyday lives to shape our perceptions.

Dining in the Dark turned out to be quite an eye-opening experience.

Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. E-mail nkam@staradvertiser.com.

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