Na lagaat means “please touch,” a welcome phrase that counters the typical “Please don’t touch” signs we come across all too often. It is the credo of the Nalagaat Center in Jaffa, a nonprofit organization that opened its doors in 2007.
The center is comprised of the Deaf-Blind Acting Ensemble; Café Kapish, with its deaf waiters; and BlackOut, the pitch-black restaurant with its staff of blind waiters. More than 70 people are employed there, most of whom are blind, deaf or both.
Inside BlackOut, the tables are turned, so to speak. Those who are not visually impaired are guided by those who are. Touch, the sense used by the hearing and sight impaired to communicate, takes center stage. All guests are escorted into the restaurant through a dim hallway. They go through a curtain and enter trainstyle, with their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them. They are led to their table slowly and carefully by their guide for the evening – their server.
Because it really is pitch-black.
The walls are absorbent velvet; there are a few buffer rooms that lead out, the final one with black lights, so there is no possibility of seeing a thing. The Nalagaat Center warns that some people find it very disconcerting, unpleasant or claustrophobic for the first few minutes. The center also suggests putting any personal items in the lockers that are provided, as anything lost during the meal is almost impossible to find.
The concept of eating in complete darkness originated with Jorge Spielmann, a blind clergyman from Zurich. When guests came for dinner at the Spielmann home, some would wear blindfolds during their meal to show solidarity with their host and to better understand his world. The guests found that the blindfolds heightened their sense of taste and smell and made their dining experience more enjoyable.
That gave Spielmann the idea of opening a dark restaurant, which he did in 1999.
We sat down at our table, and our English-speaking server, Hila, told us exactly where our silverware was and where the pitcher of mint-scented water and glasses were placed. Even though we were given a fork and knife, Hila told us we might be more comfortable eating with our hands. She also reminded us that if we signaled for her to come to the table, nothing would happen and we should not be shy to call out her name loudly when we wanted her.
Because there is no possibility of reading the menu inside, guests make their orders before stepping into the dining room. Many people opt for the surprise menu, which adds to the fun of guessing what one is eating by taste, texture and smell. I chose the vegetarian option and selected my dishes in advance, which consisted of pasta, a dessert and a soft drink (NIS 90), but got adventurous by choosing ice cream with surprise toppings for dessert.
Once we were seated, crisp bread was served quickly, which was considerately pre-buttered.
My pistachio gnocchi in a creamy poppy seed and almond sauce was rich and bursting with flavor – perfect. After a few mouthfuls, I really wanted to know what exactly was on that plate, so I stuck my fingers in it. What? It’s not like anyone could see me! (They must have been offering the bibs outside for just such a reason.) After that, I had a better idea of where to stick my fork... until I was about halfway through and kept coming up with empty forkfuls. Then I went back to using my hands.
My dining companion opted for the more expensive menu, which consisted of a fish dish (pre-boned and pre-skinned), dessert and a soft drink (NIS 110). Her red drum was served on a bed of crunchy quinoa, which was soft and flavorful. The cherry tomato stew and caramelized onions were tasty, if a little sparse. She enjoyed diving straight into the food with her hands – forgoing utensils from the start – with her head close to the plate, but really appreciated the moist towelettes Hila provided at the end of the main course.
Feeling our way carefully about the table, we were able to pour our beverages with a minimum of spills – although despite the heavy-duty wine glasses, we did not finish our bottle of wine (a first!). We did manage to clink our glasses, though.
Dessert was delightful. The homemade chocolate ice cream and the surprise toppings tasted like cherry sauce and nougat pieces – although we had no way of being sure. My dining companion’s malabi came with halva curls and, in another star turn, pistachios. It was delicious and just the right consistency. We also received a gift for the table – a rich almond crunch chocolate mousse.
We spoke with Hila and learned that her name means “light of angels” (halo). She was born with seriously impaired hearing and went blind at age 18, a common progression among many of the center’s servers and actors. Hila told us she was very glad she had had the opportunity to see until then, and she still sees when she dreams. She emphasized that she is very happy with her life, managing to do many things – including baking at home and taking buses.
At the end of the meal, Hila led us out into the light. We stood there in the main entrance of the theater, blinking at the brightness.The writers were guests of the restaurant.Blackout Kosher (dairy) Retsif Ha’aliya Hashniya Jaffa Port (03) 633-0808; www.nalagaat.org.il Open Sunday to Thursday. First service at 6:30 p.m., second service at 9 p.m. (The 9 p.m. meals are more expensive than the prices mentioned).