Dining in the Dark Experience: Market 17 in Fort Lauderdale

    By Rachelle Lucas

    Food is a multi-sensory experience, so what happens when you take away your sense of sight in a dining in the dark experience? Will the flavors of a meal seem more intense if you can’t see it?

    Personally, I couldn’t have imagined not looking at my food, especially since I’m a food writer who takes a picture of almost every meal. The colors, the shapes, the bright micro-greens, the glisten of drizzled olive oil — gazing upon all of these things prepares my palate, and tasting the first bite is like a reward for the visual anticipation.

    So, you can imagine my curiosity when I discovered there was an option for dining in the dark in Ft. Lauderdale. This was something I had to see (or not see) for myself.

    When I made the reservation over the phone and learned a little more about what to expect, I realized I wouldn’t be able to take pictures, write notes, update Facebook, send a tweet, or post to Instagram for the entire duration of the meal. This would be a true exercise in “digital detoxing” for a food writer. In today’s world of instant sharing, I was looking forward to the forced break.

    One thing I didn’t expect before my dining in the dark in Ft. Lauderdale experience was fretting over what to wear. What does one don to dine in the dark? Does it matter if no one is going to see you anyway? I decided on an outfit that was black from head-to-toe, you know, just in case I made an absolute mess of my meal or accidentally stabbed myself in the eye with a fork.

    After getting decked out in black, my husband and I met up with Kara, a fellow Florida Insider, and her husband at Market 17 to try out dining in the dark in Ft. Lauderdale. We were welcomed by our server, Greg, and followed him through the restaurant to a discrete doorway draped with black velvet curtains. He paused in front of the entrance of the dark room to ask us a few questions, but I was distracted by the night vision goggle resting on his forehead. I could have sworn we were about to be served a meal by a Navy Seal. Greg asked if we were ready to begin and I felt a bit of nervousness that had me on the edge of breaking out into a fit of giggles.

    We walked inside a small private dining room with dimly lit crystal chandeliers and a single candle illuminating a place setting for four. “This isn’t so bad,” I thought. “I can still see a little bit.” It was dark, but sort of similar to eating by moonlight. As we took our seats, Greg explained to us how he would vocally tell us when he was serving and clearing the table so we’d know where he was at all times once the lights went out. I’m thinking, “Whoa, it’s going to get darker than this?”  Sure is.

    Then Greg asked us one final question before we began; he wanted to know if we’d go “all in” and eat with our hands. We passed our forks and knives down the table, gladly surrendering all sharp objects before the lights went out. He lowered his night vision goggle and turned off the chandeliers. A single candle still flickered in the middle of the table and he walked over to it while asking, “Are you sure you’re ready?”  After we all replied, yes, he blew out the candle.

    Pitch black total darkness.

    I couldn’t stop giggling. It was nervousness mixed with joyous curiosity. “Can you see anything?  I can’t see anything. Are you still there?  Why am I looking up at the ceiling? I can’t stop blinking.”  Apparently, total darkness turned us into a bunch of chatter boxes.

    I heard the swoosh of a curtain and the sound of Greg’s voice: “Serving.” Still no light.  Still no idea where he was in the room except for a small red dot that would appear out of nowhere and then be gone in an instant. We’re being served by The Terminator.

    And then a sound filled the room: water. It was if I’d never in my life heard the sound of water before. Crisp, crystal clear, and exaggerated, like a sound effect from a movie. I listened intently as every drop filled our cups, ice rattling around in the glass. Kara gasped. I laughed. How could the sound of something so simple make me grin from ear-to-ear?

    Now the challenge, how to find my water, and drink it, in total darkness without accidentally giving myself a shower.  At least if I did, no one would see. I put both my hands on the table in front of me, and then tip-toed my fingertips like a spider until my right arm was completely extended. I felt nothing but the table cloth. I let my fingertips slowly crawl to the right until I felt the cool hard surface of my water glass. I wrapped both hands around it like a child, bringing it closer to my face, noticing that I was puckering my lips like a duck to meet the glass. It made me laugh. Of course, no one knew why I was laughing because they couldn’t see the ridiculous face I was making, so I had to explain myself which was followed by a chorus of “Me, too!”

    The first course arrived. My fingertips found and traced a cold round plate. Unable to see what was there, or even knowing how to begin, I took my index finger and stabbed the invisible food.  Cold.  Wet. Kind of mushy. I swirled it around a bit on the plate, like I was finger painting. Then my fingertips bumped into some things that felt like potato chips and parsley.  I was certainly not accustomed to identifying foods through touch.

    Then came the first bite, the intensity of each individual flavor standing out — a grainy mustard, a bitter parsley, a salty chip, and a bit of heat and spiciness I couldn’t (ironically) quite put my finger on. Greg came back in and asked us what we thought it was, but we weren’t in agreement. I guessed tuna tartare. The dining companions thought it was some other meat though, and they were right — grassfed beef tartare with creme fraiche remoulade, grain mustard, horseradish, nasturtium leaves and house made fingerling potato chips.

    We dug our hands into each course, guessing ingredients one-by-one. From cold to hot, from soft to crunchy, then dry to wet, and even slimy. The conversations around the table never stopped as we shared our thoughts about the flavors and textures of the food, what we guessed each dish was, and how much fun we were having.  We marveled at how we could hear each other eat, crunching on food and swallowing, like someone had a microphone at our throats raised up to a level 10 volume. It’s the most I’ve talked and laughed through a meal since social media was invented.

    We tasted grilled cobia with garbanzo beans and ham, seared elk filets with creamy couscous and roasted beets, almond pesto, coffee butter, spicy roasted pork tenderloin over an orange coconut ginger sweet potato puree, baby bok choy, and pomegranate molasses — every messy bite igniting a sense of wonder and amusement.

    At last, it was time for dessert. I moved my fingertips around on my plate, already feeling like a dark-dining pro. I found something warm and spongy, like cake. And then something perfectly round and cold — ice cream.  Ever try eating ice cream with your hands while blindfolded? You can’t even imagine how fun it is.

    I felt a slight tinge of sadness at the end of our meal, still eager to try more and regretting I didn’t have a single photo to remember the experience. That’s when Greg surprised us, asking if he could text us the photos the chef took of each dish. It was fascinating to see our meal after being in the dark, so beautifully plated and colorful, and the perfect ending to our dining adventure.

    If you dare to Dine In The Dark, here’s the scoop on where to go:

    Market 17

    1850 Southeast 17th Street
    Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316
    (954) 835-5507

    dining in the dark in Ft. Lauderdale

    The welcoming entrance to Market 17.

    - Rachelle Lucas for VISIT FLORIDA

    dining in the dark experience

    Spicy pan-roasted pork tenderloin with orange coconut ginger sweet potato purée, kohlrabi, bok choy and pomegranate molasses.

    - Market 17

    Diners Pete Wallace, Rachelle Lucas, Kara and Jeremy Franker and, in the center, Chef Lauren DeSheilds.

    Diners Pete Wallace, Rachelle Lucas, Kara and Jeremy Franker and, in the center, Chef Lauren DeSheilds.

Market 17

    Apple cake with house-made cinnamon ice cream.

    Apple cake with house-made cinnamon ice cream.

    - Market 17