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O.Noir

Writer Mirella Radman
Photographer Sergei Yahchybekov


When my editor Tom Junek first told me about O.Noir, Toronto’s first all in the dark restaurant, I have to admit I did not really register what exactly he meant when he said “the entire place is pitch dark.”  For some reason I assumed that there was surely a half depleted candle sitting on a silvery brown candelabra somewhere at the back of the room, casting a lovely backdrop of shading which would make the blind-folded diners and servers appear eerily haunting.
Imagine my surprise when I walked in to interview owner and manager Moe Alameddine and discovered that all three of O.Noir’s dining rooms are not only pitch black, the servers are also legally blind.  Being naturally predisposed to a terrible bout of claustrophobia and inertia (which is getting worse with age), I was nervous when Moe asked me to gently put my hand on his left shoulder as we entered the first dining rooms to get a sense of what diners at the 5:45 first dinner seating can expect.  Sensing my trepidation, Moe assured me that as long as I held on to his left shoulder and followed his lead, all would be fine.  It was.  What followed in the next few minutes was surely the most interesting dining revelation I have had in Toronto in the 20 years I have lived in this city.  Not only does O’Noir manage to capture an experience you will find nowhere else in the city, it does it superbly well!

Tucked away under a grand staircase at bottom of a little corner on Church and Charles Street East, O.Noir is quite assuredly the first Toronto restaurant to offer an alternative and dynamic dining experience that relies heavily on the senses of touch, sound and smell.  The idea behind O.Noir rests with Moe, who first tried blind dining when he encountered a similar type of restaurant during the time he was living in Zurich, Switzerland.  With a background that included stints in the fast food business, Moe, who is originally from Lebanon, decided to move on to something
more cutting-edge and modern.   Upon returning to Canada a few years back he opened the first O.Noir in Montreal and critical acclaim soon followed.  The Toronto restaurant, which he opened with partner Alejandro Martinez, occupies a nice position within walking distance from Yonge and Bloor and very close to the Yorkville circuit. Moe and Alejandro first met when working together in Montreal, and as great partnerships always go, they decided to stick together and try their luck in Toronto.  Enticing Head Chef Assad Chowdhury, to join them at the Toronto location only completed the picture, and since opening in June 2009, O.Noir has had Toronto’s foodies buzzing with excitement.  Business is brisk and includes clientele ranging from the famous (Mad Dog and Billie) to those curious to see what it is all about, and since it is the only place in Toronto to offer a dine-in-the-dark experience, reservations are best made at least a week in advance.  With two dinner seating’s – 5:45 and 9:00pm (they also offer lunch for large groups of 15 or more), O.Noir is quickly earning a reputation as the hottest ticket in town.

Moe Alameddine is extremely personable and soft-spoken and upon learning of his Lebanese roots we quickly hit it off with a discussion about the best restaurants and must-see’s of Beirut (the topic of another piece altogether!).  I discover that his roots play a small role in the menu as the cuisine can best be described as Mediterranean with
phosphate in white fish give it a glow-in-the-dark quality that does not jive with the restaurant’s darkened theme.
As Moe left for the kitchen to bring out some tasting dishes for me to try, I learn the restaurant is also beginning to put together a roster of interesting special events such as Music in the Dark, a Darkened Wine and Cheese Tasting and my personal favourite – Blind Date Night (how fitting!). 
My tasting menu had just arrived and sensing my fear of total darkness, Moe allows me to try my dishes in a semi-lit backroom.  I begin by sampling the Five Spice Filet Mignon, prepared medium rare served with potatoes and vegetables which turned out extremely tasty, followed by the Marinated Shrimp with Herbs, served with dried tomato risotto which is a must have and was absolutely to die for!  I had to fumble around for my fork and knife, but once the cutlery was finally located, the food went down well and I discovered that I really did have to rely heavily on my sense of touch and smell to figure out what was what.  I asked a server named Steve to describe the essence of the experience and he tells me that it is really about “building a relationship of trust between the server and the diner.  Once the initial element of fear and reservation is gone, you would be amazed at how quickly the diner begins to adjust and rely heavily on their senses - especially smell and taste - and after that the darkness really becomes just another state of consciousness,”  Steve also tells me that contrary to popular thought, there are very few accidents – and those that do occur usually happen in the kitchen,
Chef Assad Chowdury
enough variety to please everybody. “The menu changes every other week and can include anything,” explained Moe, “but we make a strong point of ensuring that we ask people in advance about any allergies or adverse effects, because we want to accommodate and of course we do want to keep them happy.” 

With a menu that includes starters, traditionally inspired main dishes and some excellent desserts, O.Noir differs from the rest in one noticeable feature – the menu is also in Braille.  “We are actually the only restaurant in Canada accommodating blind diners with a Braille menu “ explains Moe, “and we also go out of our way to accommodate any other unusual dining requests.  For example, one request we received was from a diner who could not eat anything that was cooked.  It was not a problem for us at all, quite the contrar;, I spoke with the Chef and we worked out a personalized dish for this diner that met his unique needs.”As Moe spoke, his partner Alejandro Martinez nodded in agreement and assured me the staff (26 in total including 10 blind servers), were committed to ensuring diners are well taken care of and the menu includes enough variety on a weekly basis to provide at least one meat, one vegetarian and one fish dish - enough to please everybody.  My gourmand side is also quite surprised to learn that white fish is the only item on the menu that cannot be served in the dark because the high levels of
Five Spice Filet Mignon
Marinated Shrimp with Herbs
making the dining room very safe, and as he aptly pointed out, “even though we are visually impaired, the servers have an excellent memory of the dining rooms.”

As I prepare to leave, I ask Moe for some parting words of what inspired him the most and he tells me that for him, “food is really the most important act for human beings – you cannot live without food, just as you cannot live without pain.”  I thank the servers and Alejandro and am still thinking on Moe’s words when I look up at a large canvas someone had wisely placed in the main lobby, completely blank of visuals save for one time-honoured phrase, “There is no darkness, only ignorance.”  Shakespeare’s lasting words pay homage to the raison d’être behind O.Noir and beckon and entice diners to follow their nose as they will not be disappointed!

620 Church Street
Toronto
(416) 922-6647
www.onoir.com
From Left: Alejandro Martinez, Moe Alameddine