Tucked away near the corner of Boulevard Saint-Laurent and Rue Prince Arthur Est, amid a row of trendy looking restaurants and shops, at first glance O.Noir appears ordinary. Charming wood-topped tables and minimalist place settings mark a quaint front patio, and a warm soft glow frames the pathway for the hostess to seat her tables; however, it is at this point that O.Noir diverts from the norm—the lobby is the only lit space in the entire restaurant. After selecting from a vague-sounding menu, customers are escorted to the pitch black dining hall where they can enjoy their meals without the hassle, or benefit, of sight.
Total darkness is surprisingly terrifying, and the waiting staff is endearingly sensitive to this, preparing their diners for the adventure with patience and ease. The restaurant offers simple salmon and scallop meals for traditionalists, and mystery courses for the spontaneous; regardless, the suspense of eating before seeing is thrilling. As customers order, tension bubbles, rising to a boil with the return of a menu. The hostess introduces the dinner party to their waiter for the evening with intense intimacy, for this person will be more than a server, but also a tour guide, a point of reference.
“Our clients bond with our waiters because in the dark they depend on them,” explained manager Alejandro Martinez. “The connection is stronger than any other restaurant.”
The waiting staff is friendly and sweet; our server Sophie anticipated our excitement and made eye contact with each and everyone of us—it took a couple seconds to remember that Sophie, like all of O.Noir’s servers, is blind. This reminder creates a moment of tension. Sophie, however, was very comfortable with leading through unexplored terrain; it became clear that O.Noir is not about managing with limited senses, but about playing with heightened ones that compensate for the loss of sight.
I opted for the path of spontaneity and chose the mystery courses. My meals were arranged as mazes of texture, serving as a reminder that food is so much more interesting than the symmetrical presentation prioritized by new age food bloggers and Instagrammers. Consistency, heat, weight—senses that had never been triggered before are suddenly crucial. Slippery-smooth parsnip is juxtaposed with soft, warm roasted potatoes, and a sickly sweet caramelized apple tops the subtly salty duck confit. Taking a bite of each of these foods is a dance, spoonfuls no longer calculated moves so much as spontaneous jabs mid-plate. Eating is not a choreographed routine but a wild improvisation, bites of meat and salad jumping out at random. Dessert follows a similar pattern in jiving a myriad of surfaces. Banana Panna Cotta was sprinkled with a hazelnut and citrus crumble that provided bursts of crunch, although the sour yogurt overpowered the acidic garnish. The meal’s final performance was not perfect; the appetizer Veal Carpacio was prepared too thick, and the dessert’s sour yogurt overpowered the acidic garnish. However, it was the production that was most mesmerizing, an experience that is more about process than presentation
The senses required to navigate a meal at O.Noir expand the gustatory experience. Social interactions, usually guided by body motions like persistent eye contact or the tilt of a head, are suddenly derailed. Conversations are actually judged by their content, and listening skills are sharpened as you pay close attention for a stumble or treble in your dining partner’s voice. If this makes for an ideal blind date, it could also be subject for a bizarre social experiment. O.Noir plays dull elevator music over the chatter, a particular nuisance with our sense of hearing taking new importance in the dark. Still, it is exhilarating to listen to the world in a new way—the laughter of surrounding tables echo the room, forks scraping score the evening, and your own conversation survives without vision.
Montreal is renowned for fine cuisine, and while O.Noir might not offer a perfect meal, it does showcase an unparalleled adventure.
“We have a culinary experience that is out of the ordinary, that focuses on taste rather than visuals,” Martinez beamed.
Bring a date, some friends, your parents visiting for the weekend; at the very least you will walk away with a good story to tell.