A restaurant experience like no other

Dining in the dark has been labeled both a sensory experience and a gimmick, but it’s also liberating – and possibly messy.

When you’re submerged in darkness and no one is watching, you have license to play with your food. It doesn’t take long before forks are cheerfully abandoned and you start eating with your hands, even if it’s mashed potatoes. Go ahead and lick your fingers. Who cares?

Letting go of formalities and experiencing the nuances of food and flavor is what dining in the dark is all about. And Market 17 in Fort Lauderdale is the first Broward restaurant I know of to offer it nightly.

The 8-week-old restaurant devotes one small room to the experience. You can have a romantic evening for two or book a group of up to 16. (This is a hot reservation, so book early.)

Market 17 co-owner Kirsta Grauberger said she first tried dining in the dark last summer in Amsterdam and “it was a highlight of our trip. It may sound odd or weird but until you’ve tried it, you don’t know how cool it is.”

It’s definitely cool.

At some European restaurants, dining-in-the-dark staffers are blind or partially sighted. (Andrew Zimmerman features one, Germany’s Blindekuh, on his website.)

At Market 17, the server wears night-vision goggles as he orchestrates your meal. When one friend was nervous about being immersed in darkness, our waiter patiently dimmed the lights so she could see we were in safe surroundings, our table set with drinking glasses, tumblers for wine (forget handling stemmed glasses), forks and butter knives (no sharp utensils for obvious reasons). Before long, she relaxed and the lights went out. (Oddly, we found ourselves shutting our eyes while we ate, even though we couldn’t see a thing.)

Chef Dan Ramos’ dining-in-the-dark menu is served mainly in bite-size pieces. It’s a minimum of four courses ($55) – all chef’s choice, though our server did ask about food allergies. Pairing food with wine, which I’d recommend, adds $15 per person.

The novelty of the experience aside, the food was superb, with a dazzling array of textures and tastes. Ramos includes a fun crisp or crunchy item with each course.

The idea is to be so focused on your food that you’re able to discern what’s on your plate, but Ramos likes to throw curve balls, like adding a “buzz button” or two to your first dish. It’s a flower bud that tingles the tongue — even numbs it a bit.

Our simple salad was a sensual pleasure — frizzy frisée lettuce, juicy heirloom tomatoes, briny Kalamata olives and crunchy pine nuts with a roasted shallot vinaigrette. We recognized the wine as a sauvignon blanc (Sbragia, of California).

The next course was flavorful wild-caught sheepshead (another curve ball) served with a beluga-lentil risotto, sautéed kohlrabi (a cabbage cousin), leeks and other veggies along with a fruity Mohua pinot noir from New Zealand.

The third course was deliciously tender grass-fed rib-eye from Ocala in a cabernet reduction, Russet potato puree, broccolini and the crunch — bone marrow sautéed with butter and herbs and served on a crostini — served with Three, a sturdy petite syrah.

We really felt like kids when we got to dessert, devouring a plateful of bite-size treats like a white chocolate shell filled with a Key lime mousse (with a pomegranate sauce and crumbly passion fruit-rosemary-mint curd) and a PB&J-style sandwich with cashew butter and cherry sauce on toasted brioche, served with a late harvest Napa zinfandel (which none of us guessed).

When our meal was over, we washed our hands with warm cloths and were ready to be led out of the darkness. The focus on wonderful food, wine and friendship – it was all enlightening.


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