Blind Taste Test

Theatrical performance at the Nalaga'at performance center; photo courtesy Nalaga'at.

Blind Taste Test
blackout: dining in style in the dark
by Melissa Meyers

Omer Sela and his team of chefs are experts in creating appetizing meals designed to be enjoyed without being seen. Sela is the manager at BlackOut, an upscale restaurant in Tel Aviv’s Nalaga’at Center where patrons eat in the dark. Founded on the basic belief that every human being has the right to contribute to society, the Nalaga’at Center (nalaga’at means “please touch” in Hebrew), works with blind, deaf, and deaf-blind folks from across Israel, empowering them to be productive members of society while promoting expanded awareness in the community.

So how does one eat in a pitch-black restaurant? Guests are led conga-line style to the table by their waiters, who explain how to navigate through the dining room. Once seated, waiters instruct guests on the finer points of dining in the dark, such as pouring a glass of water. Since there is not enough time to learn Braille before dinner, meals are pre-ordered – and once the meals arrive, things start to get interesting. It’s clumsy work eating in the dark for the first time. As Becca Nagorsky, 30, says, “You sort of eat half with your hands because if food falls off your fork, you don’t really have any way to locate it.” Luckily, BlackOut provides plenty of napkins to avoid trouble when customers’ hands and palates are on adventure.

Upscale touches, like cloth napkins and attentive, dedicated waitstaff, are one way BlackOut creates a more sophisticated atmosphere. Another is the menu, which relies heavily on textures to make up for traditional visual cues like garnish and presentation. Inventive dishes include endive boats filled with radish sprout and red onion ceviche (a raw fish salad “cooked” in citrus juices and chilies), pistachio gnocchi in a creamy poppy-seed almond sauce, and chocolate walnut ice-cream with crispy coriander seeds. Each dish features a different crunchy element.

Just across the dark divider in Nalaga’at’s renovated warehouse are the tall ceilings and whitewashed walls of Café Kapish, BlackOut’s sister coffeehouse, where the staff is deaf or hearing impaired. Without giving away too much, it’s worth the visit. In addition to the two eateries, Nalaga’at hosts a performance center featuring a troupe of deaf-blind actors. The center also offers an array of seminars geared toward a greater understanding of the deaf and blind experience, including a one-day sign language course for children and wine-tasting and clay molding workshops held in the dark.

Sela, 36, worked his way up the ranks of restaurant management before he took the helm at BlackOut and Café Kapish in 2007. He says that most blind Israelis are encouraged to pursue “hands-on” careers like massage or reflexology, while their deaf counterparts are often ushered into chef programs. At Nalaga’at, the goal is to offer expanded career opportunities to their deaf and blind staff while concurrently offering opportunities to the community for greater awareness of day-to-day life for blind and deaf people. The key to their success is their specialized, time-intensive training programs.

Back at BlackOut, 20-something Brenna Stein says she loved the food and the natural way the meal got her thinking about everyday life without sight. She was so enamored with her experience that she would like to head back for a “get-to-know-you” date. Judging from all the laughter and the empty plates alone, the community is gaining from the experience as well.

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Melissa Meyers lives in Tel Aviv.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Jewish Social Action Now issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.