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I have chocolate under my fingernails -- A report on O Noir


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I have chocolate under my fingernails -- A report on O Noir

Jacquilynne | Jul 4, 2009 11:31 AM

Because I was really interested in what it would be like, I went to O Noir.

When you arrive, you spend some time in the lit bar with the menus and a drink, deciding on your order. Then, when your party is ready and your orders are taken, you move into the darkened dining room -- single file, lined up with your left hand on the left shoulder of the person in front of you, parading behind your server, who leads you on a twisty path through tables and chairs that I'd really have expected to be a little further apart under the circumstances.

Once in the dining room, you're served water, bread, appetizers, entrees, desserts and tea or coffee, all in the pitch dark. There are occasional bursts of light when someone doesn't properly observe the two door system and light leaks through from the kitchen, and on the night I was there when the jerk at the next table kept busting out his cell phone, but on the whole it really is pitch dark in there, and you really can't see anything -- not even your hand in front of your face.

It makes eating a messy process, so it's fortunate that no one can see you as you dip your fingers in sauces or pick up lettuce with your hands because you can't find it with your fork.

But on to what is, for the purposes of this board, if not for the purposes of the restaurant itself, imporant: food.

It's really not great. It would be awesome to have the kind of densely layered dishes where you would savor the flavours in every bite and appreciate the lack of distraction from your other senses, but that's just not how it is. I'd describe the food itself as kind of upscale wedding banquet -- it's not something you'd bitch about necessarily, but it was pretty generic.

When ordering, you have a choice between ordering one of several named dishes or asking for the 'surprise' dish. Opting to hedge my bets, I chose the surprise appetizer, ordered my main, and then not being a fan of chocolate desserts, chose the surprise dessert instead of one of the two chocolate desserts they had on offer (the only other named dessert was sorbet).

First up was bread, served very hot, with a little plastic thing of butter. I'd guess it was a ciabatta roll from the shape and texture. I ended up with butter all over my fingers from trying to butter it with my knife and failing.

Next up came appetizers. I smelled, poked and prodded at mine with my hands, trying to determine what the sort of rubbery, greasy feeling sheet was, exactly, then picked up a couple of bits and pieces that were strew over it. The first bit was raw onion, and the second was a caper. By this time you've probably figured out that the food was smoked salmon, but I didn't realize that until I took a bite of it. Under the smoked salmon were some completely undressed greens. The smoked salmon was fine.

Next came some of our mains, which were delivered pretty much auction style, as in casual chain restaurant. "Who had the X?" was answered with a constant stream of patter to guide the server in your direction. "I did, over here, at the end of the table, I think, by Karla." I had ordered the shrimp with tomato risotto. The shrimp was cooked nicely, not rubbery at all, which was nice, but in a fairly generic sauce. The risotto was, near as I can tell, not risotto. There were some saucy bits of rice and some unsauced bits of rice, and in a real risotto, that couldn't possible have happened. There were also some vegetables on the side -- an asparagus spear (nicely cooked), a mushroom (fine, I guess) and a bit of zucchini (overcooked, oversalted).

Finally after the rest of our table ate, came our desserts. It came as a bit of a surprise to me, that on a menu that already offered two chocolate desserts, the surprise dessert was also chocolate. In this case, a chocolate mousse cake with a ganache top on it. It was pretty much exactly what it sounds like, and unfortunately precisely the kind of overly rich and sweet dessert I'd been hoping to avoid by not ordering one of the chocolate desserts on the menu. There was nothing wrong with it -- as chocolate mousse cakes go, it was one, alright, and I can't exactly fault them for it being that, since I did order the surprise, but is it too much to ask for something that's not chocolate and not the sorbet on a dessert menu? A nice lemon tart? Some totally generic creme brulee? I should have ordered the sorbet.

About the service: With a concept like this, there's really only two possibilities for the service. It might be so perfectly timed and rehearsed that everything goes down flawlessly and people are impressed as hell, or it might be a trainwreck. Sadly, it was the latter.

We were promised that the drinks we started in the bar would be delivered to us at our tables since we couldn't carry them ourselves, given that we'd be busy clutching the shoulder of the person in front of us. And they were -- but not until we were well into eating our entrees. And then, the first drink I was given was not my diet coke, but someone else's rye and coke. The waitress took it back and said she'd give it to him. Uh, really, after I've been drinking out of the glass? The second drink she gave me was clearly not mine from the bar area, either, as I hadn't had a slice of lemon with my drink -- though I think in that particular case, they probably just poured me a new soda rather than giving me someone else's drink, as the glass was basically full when they brought it. We never got any kind of refills on any of our drinks or on our water, so it was a remarkably dry meal, especially considering it was 3 hours long.

That, mind you, could have been to try to keep people from going to the bathroom, since that was a hassle in and of itself. When people asked about it before going in, they were told it would be no big deal and to just ask their server who would quickly guide them out and bring them back, but the reality was a trip to bathroom seemed to require 2 or 3 requests to go, and then seemed to take another 10 minutes to get them to bring you back.

There was also a pretty massive screw up somewhere with our orders, in that half of our table ate, and then it wasn't until 10 minutes or so after we finished that they brought the entrees for the other half of our table, despite repeated assurances in the meantime that they were checking up on them.

Finally, they offered around coffee and tea, and I ordered tea. It came in a mug, with sugar already in, and bag still in, and that mug was unbelievably hot, but there was nothing to do but grab it by the bowl since the server was holding the handle. I can still see the red marks it left on the pads of my fingers. If they can't find a way to serve tea safely -- and since you're grabbing for it from somewhere near your right shoulder, I can certainly imagine an awful lot of those cups of teas ending up in people's laps, or dumped all over the people next to you -- then they shouldn't serve it at all.

They were also playing music at a pretty high volume into what sounded like a pretty cavernous, empty, banquet hall style room, which meant the conversations were loud, and got louder as time passed, as everyone tried to talk over each other, and compensate for not being seen by definitely being heard. Even if the food had been of a quality suitable for savoring, you wouldn't have found yourself savoring it undistracted.

As an experience, O Noir was definitely interesting and even a lot of fun -- we got the whole restaurant to sing Happy Birthday to nobody in particular, discussed the likelihood that there were secret flashers in the room, and, yes, ended up with chocolate under our fingernails from feeling around our plates, trying to find our food -- and I would actually recommend people try it for the experience. But go as a tourist, rather than as a chowhound, because the food is not the attraction. And maybe give them a few weeks to rehearse the kinks out of their service.

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