Pitch dark space. A heightened palate. Burst of flavours and aromas. A bit of clumsiness. A memorable dining experience. This best describes my date with gastronomic indulgence at Alchemy in The Dark by French Creation Group, a new entrant to the city’s culinary rooster.
Would you like to dine in the dark? –the media invite asked. The idea, although not a new one, is exciting and scary, just the same. For someone like me, who is usually clumsy around food, not to mention a tad claustrophobic, the thought was almost daunting. The adventurous foodie, however, won over, and the following evening, I found myself (with my partner in tow), walking up Arbuthnot Road in Central.
The dimly lit entrance leads you to the Alchemy Lounge—a 19th Century boudoir or an alchemist’s private study, complete with wooden parquet, plush velvet chairs and futons, and shelves lined with books and crystal carafes. It’s a perfect setting to relish their exhaustive and impressive cocktail menu, crafted by bar manager Kevin Le Nabasque, previously of Le Boudoir on Wyndham Street He will be whipping up a new mystery cocktail each week!
After struggling a bit with the long drinks list, we ordered their signature Buddha’s Tears and Thai Mojito (they have almost ten different renditions of Mojito). While the former was a yummy potion of Absolut Vanilla Vodka, lime juice, coco sugar, kaffir lime leaf, egg white and a hint of thai chili; the later was a perfect contrast—a potent concoction of rum, kaffir lime packed with a punch of Thai chilli. A few other interesting choices included Mascarade, a heady mix of Chivas 12 years, Chambord liqueur, strawberries, lemon juice, fresh mint, gomme syrup and Mexican’s Drop, featuring Olmeca Reposado Tequila, Cointreau, cucumber, coriander, lime juice, gomme syrup.
Buddha’s Tear (left), Mascarade (right)
“The concept of dining in the dark is not a new one,” Kevin tells us, as we sit relishing the drinks. “It was first introduced by Dans le Noir restaurant in Paris (followed by that in London). While ‘dining in dark’ is the central theme for us, we have tried to lay equal emphasis on the food –playing with the flavours, textures and senses.” If the cocktails were anything to go by, then we were definitely in for a treat.
Next we are given a brief orientation by their floor manager. A three-course mystery menu is on offer for a price of HK$500 per person, with an option of wine pairing at a further HK$700 per person. The menu changes regularly. They check with us about any dietary restrictions, allergies or dislikes, in order to custom make our menu. Since you don’t know what you will be served, (and won’t be able to see it while eating), the fun lies in guessing.
We are then taken downstairs, first to the lockers, where all our gizmos are locked up. We are then introduced to our guide, Keith—the waiting staff are visually impaired. Soft-spoken and affable, Keith, lead us to our table. With one hand on his shoulder, we waddled along, brushing past heavy curtains, in the 850sq. ft. windowless 25-seater room, with not a speck of light. Abandoning all the culinary conventions, we sat down to what can only be described as a truly engaging experience. In fact, the digital detox definitely added to the date. You will be surprised at the conversations and banter that come to fore once your mobile phones are safely locked away. Add to that the general nervousness that darkness brings with it, and you soon seem to lose all your inhibitions, and ramble away.
Spoiler alert: Giving away what you will eat will definitely spoil all the fun. Being vegetarian, however, I was extremely amazed by the rich repertoire of flavours and textures on display. While the dark space is key to the experience, its incomplete without the culinary delights. Word of caution though: Continue reading if you want to kill the suspense.
Each course had five different sampler sized bites, with contrasting ingredients and tastes. Keith quietly laid out the first course, leaving us with a few instructions (“Watch out for the straw in your soup!”, although it was a bit late, as by then the straw had made its way to my nose.) The plate featured a small bowl of ’Tomato Soup with Cumin Emulsion’—rich and tangy with a hint of spices. While we got tomato correct, cumin proved to be difficult to track. The other appetisers included ‘Endive with Aubergine’, an ideal combination— as the endive (we mistook it for lettuce) provided the adequate crunch against the succulence of the eggplant. The ‘French beans’ and ‘Fried olives’ pleased with their simple but delectable seasoning, while a refreshing ‘Salad with Tomato Compote’, acted as an apt accompaniment.
Inability to see instantly changes our behaviour– etiquettes are immediately forgotten as using our hands becomes imperative. In fact, the dishes are crafted such that it’s easier to maneuver with our hands, than a fork. By the time the first course was done, we eased into eating without sight.
The main course included ‘Creamy Crispy Mushroom’, perfectly fried crust that give way to buttery mushroom as you bite into it. The ‘Crispy Saffron Risotto’ was a delectable mouthful. While Chef Pascal’s cuisine is modern French, his diverse international experience shows in his selection of dishes—we were taken by surprise by the ‘Fingerling Potatoes in Japanese Spices’—the juicy starch was lightly laced with condiments. I even enjoyed their simple and rustic preparation of ‘Parsnip and Fennel’. A ‘Carrot puree with Pine Nuts’ was a remarkable dip – I couldn’t help but scoop up a few spoonfuls of the velvety paste. The main course paid homage to Chef’s love of playing with spices and textures, to create a medley of flavours, contrasting and complementary, just the same.
While we were still reeling with the burst of palates, Keith brought out the desserts. ‘Rum and Raisin Ganache with Toasted Coconut’, and ‘Swiss White Chocolate Dipped Grapes’ were a treat for any chocolate lover. My favourite, however, was the ‘Lemongrass Creme Brule’, light, supple and refreshing. The ‘Strawberry shortcake’; ‘and ‘Rice Crisps with Mixed Nuts’, helped to balance out the texture and sweetness of the other three deserts. Each course was perfectly paired with a delicious wine.
While most of our conversation revolved around guessing the various delicacies, and exchanging notes with strangers on the next table, it was a refreshing change from all the digital distractions. The dark lull of the place encourages you to sit back from the chaos of the outside world, and revel in peace and quiet, even if just for a while. In our case the silence was broken by the boisterous banter of a lively French group on a night out!
While I would strongly recommend the experience—leave all your inhibitions and embark on a remarkable gastromonic indulgence. Those weak of heart or lacking an adventurous streak, can dine at the Lounge –a casual dining den open for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch, with Chef Pascal Breant’s culinary delights, and Kevin Le Nabasque’s explosive cocktails.
A few delicacies from Alchemy Lounge’s menu:
Note: The restaurant has a ‘no service charge’ policy, so do tip your guide generously!
Alchemy | G/F , LG/F, 16 Arbuthnot Road, Central District, Hong Kong | Tel: +852 6821 2801
Alchemy in the Dark is open from Monday to Saturday from 7pm to 11pm by reservation only. Alchemy Lounge will open Monday to Saturday from 12 noon to 11pm.