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Alchemy: Wining and Dining in the Dark in Hong Kong

Posted: Monday, 13 October 2014 13:37

Alchemy: Wining and Dining in the Dark in Hong Kong

Oct 13: While Hong Kong has innumerous restaurants available for handsome eating at various price points-including those with a cumulative 85 Michelin Stars and the people spoilt for choices, for those looking for adventure and a unique wining and dining experience, the recently opened Alchemy Restaurant offers an interesting French-dining opportunity in Hong Kong, writes Subhash Arora who was one of the wine judges attending the gala dinner hosted by the organisers of the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Competition which concluded a day later on October 9

Click For Large ViewAs you walk into the Alchemy Bar and Restaurant at Arbuthnot Road, the well-known bar district in Hong Kong Central, you are greeted by a man with a beard, holding an iPad. There are cozy seats laid in Lounge setting beyond a bar with a longish counter on your right and a 19th century study/library. It looks like a small bar cum lounge, oozing warmth and old-world charm. As we all hold a glass of wine in our hands, this Frenchman gathers our group of 18 in 3 lots and explains the concept of Alchemy and what each of us can expect when we are escorted to the Dark Restaurant downstairs.

Kevin Le Nabasque from Brittany is the restaurant manager and one of the several partners of the restaurant with a unique concept. The 25-seater restaurant in the lower ground floor section is pitch dark and no watches, cell phones or bags are allowed, he says during the short orientation talk. Menu will be secret and would be disclosed at the end from the iPad he is carrying. It is a Fixed Menu and is changed every week to give a fresh experience every time you visit the restaurant. There would be two visually impaired waiters, Calvin and Ken, who would escort each one of us, walking in a file to our table. The restaurant donates 5% of the profits to local eye charities.

The dinner is a 3- course meal-appetizer, mains and dessert. Each plated course has 5 dishes which you are welcome to guess by touch and smell. They have been prepared by the partner Chef Pascal Breant who is another Frenchman working earlier in a 3-Michelin star restaurant in France. The cutlery would be only a knife, fork, serviette and a plastic glass for water. After you sit down on the table, with a bit of unbalance and a lot of uncertainty and anxiety, the server asks each person the choice of mineral water which is presented in a 500mL plastic bottle. After holding each other’s hands or whatever the social mores allow, one gradually feels more certain and less claustrophobic.

The bread basked is served in the middle of the rectangular table with rounded corners which we find by feeling the table ends. We also realise that the tables are set in such a way that one can barely walk through the space between the sofas and the table-so there are no chances of falling down provided you follow the instructions given by the man-in-charge who has earlier introduced each of us to the respective server. Both Calvin and Ken are well trained waiters and know the restaurant territory rather well.

We are told to hang on to the knife and fork because they are the only tools at the table. I feel comfortable as we had been told to wash our hands well since we might be expected to eat with them if we are unable to use the knife and fork. Being an Indian used to eating food with hands, I feel I am at an advantage as I hear one clink at the nearby table of a knife or fork falling down. I feel it is a knife from the sound as we focus more on sound of any kind, coming from any direction without the usual cue.

First Course cometh

The first course comes and the plates are passed around using hands as the navigator to pass them to the extreme end of the table, till everyone has a plate in front of him/her. You need to hang on to your water bottle because it might be embarrassing if you are the only one dropping it! The plate has 5 appetizers many of which you might be able to guess. While people are trying to use the conventional tools- fork and knife, even though no item on the secret Menu needs a knife, I hold on to the water bottle with one hand and look for the bread basket in the middle. No problems so far as I get busy with my hands and then start demolishing each component one by one and trying to use my sensory powers to determine what I was eating. But, essentially the dishes are warm and not hot and I pick up one by one by hand after starting with the salad.

No gourmet dining experience is complete without wine. This place is no exception. The 3-course dinner is priced at HK$ 500 for the Dark Dining, with additional HK$ 200 bringing a paired wine with each course. We have been allowed to bring our own wines- enough to feed the 30-50 covers in an evening that sees two shifts at 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm.  We are pre-warned that they would be served based on which wine bottle comes in the hands of the of the servers.

Red or white wine in the dark

Click For Large ViewIt is often claimed by non-wine aficionados that despite the fancy terms defining the colour and flavours of a wine, there are studies that show that even most experts may not be able to tell the difference between a white wine and a red wine when tasted blind and at the same temperature. In fact, the Austrian Riedel Glass Company, a leader in fine quality wine glass making, has developed a series of black coloured, opaque wine glasses and decanters to convert this belief into Euros of sales. So it was an anxious moment for some of us to delve into the contentious area. To me it tasted like a white (remember, it is totally dark and one can’t see a thing) wine-fruity and good acidity in the back end.

But it was Debra Meiburg MW who, by training and almost by definition of an MW, is an excellent taster; she yelled-it feels and tastes like Kerner from Japan! Granted, that as the Director of the Competition she perhaps knew that one of the 20 odd bottles we had towed to the restaurant, was a Kerner she might have tasted earlier at the Venue of the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Competition. With that indulgence granted,  she was spot on- 100 points on the wine tasting marking scale. I was happy to know that the next wine was also a white wine in the second plastic glass and I had finished both the drinks without spilling on my lap. The restaurant pre-advises you not to wear light or expensive clothing just in case you might spill something.

Sing but don’t dance

The next two courses finished in record time. But you won’t expect a post-dinner hot tea or coffee here- though people were now more relaxed and in a mood for banter; the focus was first to eat through the meal without any noticeable embarrassing episodes.

The second shift customers were noticeably absent this evening so it was time to relax and regress a little. Starting from rock, pop and going on to national anthems of all the countries represented at the table (I did stand up as a mark of respect and due to the legal requirement in India at such places), and we ended up singing nursery rhymes! Naturally, there is no music to dance to or the place for it, so we did our best to enjoy ourselves-till suddenly I felt the urge to go to the bathroom!

This could be the most embarrassing moment for any Senior Citizen. Do you yell out and say you want out or you use prayers and various forms of meditation to keep the bladder in control? Would I walk over the table or slide underneath? I chose to ignore it and concentrated on prayers and meditation. I am glad it worked. But I must ask Kevin next time when I see him about the code of conduct. The way we had come in-I doubt if it would have been easy to climb over other people to walk out through the door even though we had been told we should just call out to Calvin or Ken. Anyway, the anxious moments passed without any accidents and as we walked out of the restaurant to come up to the ground floor, helped by the server who was fully at command, we made it without any mishap.

Not the First or the Only One

Come to think of it, the idea could not be novel as a few Hollywood movies had already depicted the concept. In the heart of New Delhi, Prestige Wines had created a similar experience by blind-folding each guest after they had been seated and served French cuisine at The Grill Restaurant at The Lalit. But that seemed primitive and a lot more basic compared to this real experience. As Kevin explained , ‘the idea has been there since a decade with Paris, London and several other metropolitan cities having a restaurant providing this unique experience. But living in Hong Kong, I realise there was no such restaurant so far so we decided to take the First Mover advantage.’

However, Kevin said this was a stand-alone, independent restaurant with no affiliation with any similar restaurant in the world though they had several experienced partners who had invested and knew and appreciated the concept. Trying to create sensibilities and empathy towards the visually impaired persons and make one feel what they go through in their every day routine, he was happy with the response they had since it opened in June this year. He also clarified that the Menu upstairs was different, though made by the same Chef. One could come both for lunch or dinner in the upper section but the Dark Room was open only in the evening-Monday to Saturday.

Unique Experience

Click For Large ViewNo matter what your cultural or culinary background may be, the restaurant offers a unique experience for the first timers and those who would like to take their out of town guests for a unique experience. But most people in our group were still gathering their thoughts from what they had just experienced inside and were not sure they would come back for anther fine dining experience by themselves or their family or friends or wait for a special opportunity like the one organized by HKIWSC for 18 of the judges this evening.

As I walked downhill through the streets lined with bars and blaring music to reach the MTR station 5 minutes away, my thoughts were distracted towards a very dull coloured red light in our section. Staring directly at me, was it connected to some master room being under surveillance by the Hong Kong Police or the restaurant or was it for emergencies? I had forgotten to ask Kevin before leaving. I was in a hurry to reach my next  appointment in Kowloon where I had set up an interview for delWine at 10 pm and was already running 75 minutes behind!

I guess I would have to go to Alchemy for another dinner on my next visit to Hong Kong to find out! I think I will choose the Lounge for a casual dining restaurant which is open for lunch, dinner, and for weekend brunches.

Subhash Arora

Hong Kong has five 3-star, thirteen 2-star and 44 1-Michelin star restaurants with a cumulative 85 stars. (Source: discoverhongkong.com)

 For more information, visit www.alchemy-concept.com or write to
Kevin@alchemy-concept.com or Chef Pascal at  pascal@alchemy-concept.com

Tags: Alchemy, Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Competition, Alchemy Bar and Restaurant

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