by David Isle

I know of few restaurants in the world where a single meal is worth a plane trip. But Noir in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam is one of them. The reason is not so much the food itself - although it’s very good, and without that, the success of the project would be greatly compromised - but the experience. 

“Dining in the dark” is not just an allusive tagline - it is actually what you do at Noir. The dining room is pitch black. You can't see a thing. At first you might question the wisdom of this design choice. I have to admit that if the restaurant didn’t come so highly recommended, I might have let me doubts get the better of my curiosity, and spent the night with another bowl of pho somewhere else in the city. But in fact it is a true stroke of genius.

Firstly, because the lack of sight changes your relationship with the food. You don’t order off the menu - before entering the dining room, you choose either the “Western” menu, “Eastern” menu, or “vegetarian” menu, and tell them about anything you can’t eat. Then you’re led into the darkness. Everything else about the food you eat you must discern form your sense of smell and taste, at least until you are debriefed on everything you ate in the lit lounge after it’s all over.

This possibility of discovery forces those senses into activity. I realized during the course of this meal that most of the other times that I order, say, pork, I have a strong expectation of what I am going to get, and that expectation largely determines the experience I have. At Noir, you eat without expectation; but with great anticipation. You wind through a labyrinth of sensory twists and turns to find at the end - this must be octopus! Another journey teaches the surprising similarities between duck and pork.

Other sensations are heightened too - without a cell phone or book for distraction, I found myself listening more intently to the table next to me (speaking Chinese, so the appreciation was purely aesthetic), investigating the difference in texture between my table’s lacquered top and its grainy underside.

The other relationship that changes is the one between you and the waiter. The wait staff at Noir is blind. They manage the dark with incredible - at least to a seeing person - ability. They have to know, at all times, and for every table that they are serving, where the silverware is, where the glasses are, where the plate is, and so on. Not to mention knowing the layout of the room well enough to be able to move through it quickly - sometimes while carrying multiple items - without knocking anything or anyone over.

As a diner, who has only recently and temporarily lost their sight, you are completely dependent on your waiter. Not in the same sense as you say you “depend” on a particularly talented waiter at an excellent restaurant to direct you to the most interesting parts of the menu. In the sense that this person must teach you how to feed yourself. 

Try to think of all the things that you would have to tell a person who just lost their sight to enable them to sit at a table and eat pleasantly for an hour. I bet you’ll forget some things. “There’s your fork and spoon” is not good enough. More detail is needed. The waiter must be explicit and exhaustive. The waiter must tell the diner, “on your right side is a fork, and to its right a spoon; to the right of your spoon is your wine glass.”

The food arrives on trays, each one carrying three or four small bowls are plates, which are kept in place with small depressions like cupholders on an airplane tray table. The waiter explains for each one, “there are four things on this tray. On the top right is a soup, so use your spoon for that one.” And so on. Of course they have a lot of practice. But doing this well requires no small amount of sympathy for another human’s predicament - enough that, despite there being no conversation other than about food and the mechanics of eating it, the experience is quite intimate. 

Maybe it says more about me that I judge this small and fleeting intimacy to be worth traveling hours for. I can only tell you that it’s not like any meal you’ve had before, and it may change every meal you have after.