This was no ordinary evening out for dinner. I had heard of Onoir for several years and each time I came up with an excuse why I didn’t want to eat in the dark. This time was different and what an eye-opening experience it was.
You would never know by walking by on the pedestrian-only Prince Arthur Street that Onoir is really a lights-out place on the inside. Their comfortable and spacious terrasse could rival any fine venue along the Seine in Paris. Indeed, this is a people-watching area that they call Orues, so they’ve got you covered, errr uncovered, if you prefer to dine eyes wide open. And so we started our culinary experience on the cozy terrasse as I had a blonde beer brewed just down the block and my wife and daughter enjoyed sangria. A huge mural was just completed on their outside wall by famous graffiti artist Stikki Peaches depicting a young Salvador Dali.
But what brothers Alejandro and Ian Martinez Ortiz and their mom Oralia have cooking inside is what really sets them apart from the rest. This family was born and raised in Mexico City but when asked why they came to make new lives in this city, Ian says, “Montreal chose us!” And so it goes for this culturally rich, philosophically astute and community minded entrepreneurial trio.
Ian majored in Native Studies in Anthropology and non-Western History at Concordia University while brother Alejandro, a musician, studied the business side of of music and sound engineering.
The idea came to the family and Mohammed Alameddine on a trip to Switzerland; Create a dining experience truly apart from any other by tingling your senses and heightening your interaction with the food. With this innovative concept they launched North America’s first restaurant, literally in the dark, 10 years ago, here in Montreal.
Ian greeted Judy, Nicole and I in the well-lit and wood-cabin-decorated main room where you’ll find the bar and a few tables for drinks and appetizers. Here you peruse the menu and select from the generous offerings of appetizers, main dishes and desserts along with an exclusive wine, beer and aperitif list. You make your selection, en lumiere so to speak, but they throw you an interesting challenge in offering a “surprise” that you may choose for each of your courses. Let them decide upon what they serve you, and you figure it out, in the dark! “It accentuates the experience,” Ian tells us.
There’s a little of everything on the menu including vegan options. The main courses include mushroom pie, shrimp in butter, salmon fillet, duck breast, rabbit and the popular grilled beef shoulder. We all choose the surprise but Judy and Nicole are able to stipulate certain dietary restrictions.
Upstairs we go to one of the two blackened dining rooms where we are introduced to our server, Sophie. Like all the servers at Onoir, Sophie is legally blind (she has just 15% vision). With my hands on her shoulders, Judy’s on mine, and Nicole’s on hers, we form a ‘conga line’ and shuffle slowly and cautiously into the pitch black room. Sophie puts my hand to the back of my chair and I slide into my seat while my hands gingerly feel the tabletop and its contents: cutlery, napkin, oops, that’s my wife doing the same on her side. Wall to my right. Empty place setting to my left. Sound of dinner guests behind me. Two of them – man and woman. I’ve got my bearings. I quickly tuck the cloth napkin into my shirt and an extra one over my lap, perhaps anticipating the inevitable clumsiness.
Along comes Sophie. She taps my left shoulder for me to reach for my water glass. A small sip. My first spill! My napkin prepping helped. Ian would later tell us that that 50-60 year olds tend to be the messiest in the dark, kids usually adapt the easiest. “How often do spills occur,” I ask Ian. “Every night!”, he chuckles in response.
They’ve thought of everything. Even padding the room with sound absorbing material to dampen the echo since patrons sense of sound is more acute in the dark.
Judy, Nicole and I discuss our new comfort zone, describe what we feel and how we’re going to manage our meal. We hear the door open and instantly smell and feel the wonderful aromas wafting past our noses. Our sense of smell has already reached a new high only minutes into the dark. Our eyes see nothing at all but our noses pick up the sweet scents of sesame oil and cumin. We’re already teeming with excitement about what lies ahead.
Sophie announces that she has placed our plates before us and we reach for the cutlery to attempt to eat a normal dinner. But there is nothing normal about this evening. We touch the edge of the plates to delineate the ‘playing field’. I scoop, Judy dabs, Nicole uses her fingers!
Judy and Nicole start comparing notes since their surprise appetizers are identical. But since there are several different elements on the plate they are not always tasting the same thing at the same time. The kitchen takes care to cut up the food into bite sized pieces unless it’s soft enough for the guest to cut with a fork. We never used the butter knives on our table.
I begin to savour my dish. The smell and the weight upon the fork are all factors registering before it hits my mouth. All of a sudden, it passes my lips and the taste instantly explodes.
“There’s a party in my mouth,” Judy says, going through the same sensations.
The texture of the food item upon the tongue helps us to decipher what we’re eating. How chewy or juicy, thick or dense, are elements we don’t usually think of. What a powerful and sudden experience from the first bite.
I really appreciated that there are many different textures on the plate from shaved turkey to potato salad and cauliflower sauce.
Judy and Nicole enjoyed chunky tuna tataki with crunchy sweet potato chips. The surprise element definitely added to the fun.
The main courses arrive. Again, fingers checking the circumference of the plates. What were we in for? No idea…
After we devour the main courses and even lick our fingers, I invite Sophie to sit with us for a few minutes to review what we thought we might have eaten. “I think mine was duck and I tasted asparagus,” I quiz Sophie. “But I don’t know what the rest was.”
Sophie tells me my surprise was an exquisite duck breast with a blueberry and old-style mustard sauce and garlic flakes. Each bite was something special. The crunchy sweet potato and parmesan, leek and asparagus fondue was incredible, along with the playful, snappy crunchy garlic chips.
The girls enjoyed a salmon with nice, crunchy skin, stewed cabbage and broiled parsnips. They are much better at guessing than me. Judy paired her meal with a glass of wine and did not spill a drop! “The flavours were vibrant and singing in my mouth,” Judy says.
Sophie tells us she has worked here for seven years. In fact, it was her first job since she turned 18 and she loves it every day. She helps us better understand our environment by describing the room, the number of tables, how she manoeuvres about, memorizing who ordered what and where everyone is seated.
What comment does she hear often?
“People are surprised. Sometimes they start off a bit stressed. Most don’t completely understand the challenges a visually impaired person, or totally blind person, lives with,” Sophie reveals. “People are generally scared in the dark. We have funny moments sometimes. It’s a good comment on society to come and learn and ask questions about how we work, how we function,” she says appreciatively.
Owner Ian comes to join us when our surprise desserts are served. The chefs have some fun with one dessert which has roasted quinoa as a garnish. Judy loves chocolate but announces that tasting the dark chocolate mousse with caramelized mangoes, crunchy puff pastry and mango coulis on her tongue, while in the dark, takes it to a new level. Nicole enjoys her quinoa with blueberry sauce while I savour every bit of my almond and raspberry soft cake with crème fouettée, honey and vanilla. I couldn’t imagine leaving any behind and swipe my fingers across the plate (and found some on the placemat).
Ian tells us, “The darkness is like an invisible canvas: we rediscover our senses. There are 30 people employed at Onoir. All of the servers are legally blind.The chefs are creative and playful and take care to have the meal tell a story. Kids always like this restaurant. They’re amazed in discovering the food. The adults are more afraid.”
They have repeat customers that come every one or two months. “The first impulse is to come because it’s something new. It’s kind of like entertainment but we’re pushing for it to become a culinary experience,” Ian says. “We have tourists from all around the world, foodies, locals…” The menu is changed each season.
“It’s like a funny social experiment over these 10 years”, Ian reminisces.
What funny stories?
There’s the one about the adult who didn’t like vegetables and shoveled them all onto her child’s dish. Or the diner who couldn’t understand why his wine glass was emptied so quickly only to find out his buddy kept drinking his wine. Ian tells about the group that got quite tipsy and left the restaurant and forgot about their friend. It was only later that night when he went in to clean up and flipped the lights on that he jumped in fright when he discovered the friend asleep at the table.
“We’ve had guests come here on blind dates,” Ian tells us. “He was already seated inside when she arrived, and she left before he did. I always wondered if they had a second date?”
“Our staff are absolutely amazing. What we find really nice is that it’s not just a job. It’s empowering our staff,” Ian says proudly. “Inside the room, we are the handicapped ones and they become our eyes. Once they start working here most of our waiters never go,” he says.
The blind community is relatively small and a lot of them know each other. After hours many will come and hang out here, the blind and sighted, all together. They come here to hang out more than to eat. They can have the Onoir experience in any restaurant but only here do they have a sense of community.
Sophie interrupts our discussion when she enters the room with our tea and coffee. Be very careful she says. We immediately smell the sweet aroma of our hot beverages. We carefully take the handle of the mug and place the hot cup on the table to plan to drink with care.
“We believe that each of us has a mission, a path before us in life. We were given the honour to explore and to learn what we have learned, together with them (the sight impaired). They have opened our eyes,” Ian emphasizes. “I follow the symbolic language of life. I see the signs that speak to us. We’re a spiritual family. This place was waiting for us. It is our calling to take care of this place and these people. We know why we’re here. The most valuable thing I’ve learned here is the people. We trust our intuition,” he says.
They have found a winning formula in Onoir. The experience was tremendous. We confronted our inhibitions. We challenged our senses. And we learned about the lives of caring and insightful people like Sophie and Ian, Alejandro and their mom. And, the food is delicious (although we’re still not sure about the presentation).
I guess they’re right: It’s better in the dark!
Onoir is open seven nights a week during the summer and closed Tuesdays in winter, from 5:45PM. The terrace is open all summer for dinner and drinks. They also welcome groups and corporate team-building for lunch or dinner. Prices range from $36 for two services or $42 for all three.
124 Rue Prince Arthur E, Montreal, QC H2X 1B5
620 Church Street, Toronto