Innovation and novelty are things which have been driving the dining scene in Krakow for some time now. Asian food, fusion, food trucks, vegetarian, gourmet burger joints, and ‘authentic’ food of all types have arrived, resulting in a city which can truly hold its own in Central Europe, transforming it from the predictable, safe, tourist-friendly zone of ten years ago. Krakow is, if not pushing the envelope food-wise, certainly nudging it gently. Where can restaurants go from here? Well, how about dining in the pitch dark? And eating food you can’t see, without even knowing what it is? That’s a curve ball. I decided to drop in to illuminate our readers as to what this was all about.
The concept of dark restaurants isn’t that new. In fact, it was invented in Zurich in 1999 by a blind clergyman who, when inviting guests for dinner, blind-folded them so they were deprived of their most important sense. He found that his sighted guests’ senses of taste and smell were heightened whilst eating, improving their dining experience. He went on to open the world’s first recorded dark restaurant. There are dozens of dark restaurants around the world now, but only three in Poland—the only others being in Poznań and Warsaw. Poznań’s has been there for nearly ten years, so they must be on to something.
Situated a stone’s throw from the market square, on Dominikańska, it’s handily located. On entering, the (lit) bar area at street level, you are greeted by a waitress who talks you through how things work, and handed an aperitif—a glass of prosecco. You’re offered a menu with six options: meat, fish, vegetarian, vegan, Polish, and chef’s special. For each option, there are four courses: entrée, soup, main, and dessert. Prices range from 99zł for vegan/vegetarian to 300zł for chef’s special. You’re asked if you’re allergic to or don’t like anything. Apart from that, you have no clue what you’re getting served.
Then you are led downstairs, to a room in which there is no light at all. Pitch blackness such that you rarely find. You’re not allowed to take any form of light with you—phones, watches, etc. must be put away. The waiter, in case you were wondering, can see with the aid of a night-vision light. You walk through some thick curtains, through a long room, your hand on the shoulder of the waitress, who leads you to your table (which is large). You then sit and wait, and try to imagine what the room looks like and who else is in it. There seemed to be two other tables occupied, one by a quite large and vocal, excited group; the other by a couple. Not their first date, I’d imagine. Some ambient music plays. I ordered a beer (Paulaner Weisen, which I could definitely identify blind).
What happens next is quite strange. A bowl of soup arrives, and you are just about able to locate the spoon and put it to your mouth without spilling it. Identifying it is another matter. I had gone for the meat set, but I was completely flummoxed by what I had ordered. It had definitely got some small pierogi-type things floating in it, but the over-riding flavour was salty and I just had no idea what I was eating. I definitely liked it though. I could only guess it was barszcz z uszkami (beetroot soup with dumplings) although that wouldn’t have been terribly meaty. The entrée is the point where things start to get rather tricky. Using a knife and fork in the darkness is nigh on impossible; spearing things is the best you can hope for. Helpfully, the chef prepares the food so that you can either pick it up with your hands to eat (not as messy as it sounds) or eat by randomly spearing things as they’re mostly in bite-size pieces already. I could taste a crunchy, cold, salty dish, which I was able to eat with my hands quite easily. The meat was ground into small pieces, and there was a sweet background flavour. It wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. The strange thing about eating without sight is that it takes away all certainty and you have to rely on instinct. It makes you realize how similar in taste a lot of things actually are; all meat is essentially salty, so guessing it is hard. I went for some kind of tartar, mainly due to the texture and temperature.
The main course arrived, and I ordered a red wine to go with it. It struck me that it might be hard to tell if it was red or white wine in the dark—all you know is if it’s sweet or dry. And even that you need to concentrate on. The main arrived and it was some kind of meat cut into pieces—very tender, succulent, and with some traces of fat. A red meat. It had a peppery sauce accompaniment. I could also identify asparagus and potatoes that went with it—asparagus is hard to disguise because of its shape, and the same with potatoes. These were thinly sliced, though. I had dispensed with the cutlery completely now and gone feral. My senses told me I was eating beef steak of some kind. Dessert was easy: a crème brûlée, given away by its singed, caramelized surface. But it was served with some extra bits that I simply wasn’t able to identify. I polished it all off and licked the plate. (Well, no one could see, not even my girlfriend, who was two feet away.)
We were led back upstairs, blinking into the light, and back to the bar, to find out what we’d had. We were asked first, then handed envelopes with our respective menus. I felt like a schoolboy opening his exam results. My soup had been Guinea fowl consommé with ravioli filled with egg yolk, truffle, and green onion essence; not one to beat myself up about for failing to guess. Entree had been deer tartar with grapes, black elder mousse, and caramelized hazelnut ‘in forest aroma’ (!) so I more or less got that. My main had been filet mignon in morchella esculenta cream sauce with green asparagus, potatoes au gratin, and green parsley powder. Dessert: crème brûlée with rhubarb, meringue chips, and coconut powder. Surprisingly ambitious and inventive food. I guessed (more or less) three out of four: not bad. But I am a restaurant reviewer. 80% of people fail to guess completely. I am not surprised; the chef playfully disguises things so well that it’s a devilishly difficult thing to do.
Would I recommend this? Wholeheartedly. An absolutely quality addition to the dining scene—not only is this not just a gimmick, the food is top quality, prepared with a huge amount of thought and care, and the menu imaginative (and regularly changed*)—and it is also good value. 150zł for my four-course meal isn’t much more than the going rate. On top of this, the service is amazing (it has to be), and the overall eating experience second to none in Krakow. I may not come back here for a while, and I wouldn’t bring my parents. Solo dining could also be a bit weird. You might not want to come here for a business dinner either. Bring people you know well, and an open mind; if you want a dining experience like no other—and I really mean this—enlighten yourself and give it a try. It’s a blinding experience.
Value for Money ★★★★☆
* I visited in August 2016, and the management insisted I delay this review until the menu was changed, so the above food will no longer be on the meat menu.
A version of this article originally appeared in the 121st print edition of The Krakow Post.