Do you recognize this masked man in a chef’s jacket? Hint: he’s New Jersey’s best-known chef, a food-loving fellow from the Raritan Bay Shore. He owns nine restaurants in the Garden State, five in the Empire State, and others as far-flung as Saudi Arabia.
Yes, it’s David Burke, who our magazine has called New Jersey’s rockstar chef. His many restaurants include 1776 in Morristown, Ventanas in Fort Lee, and The GOAT in Union Beach, close to his hometown of Hazlet.
Burke’s restaurants are noted not only for their cuisine but for their food and drink specials, live music, comedy nights and trivia nights, and strip nights (as in strip steak). The aim, Burke says, is “to serve delicious and exciting food and to keep the dining experience festive and energizing. A boring restaurant is not what New Jersey wants.”
All good … but why the mask? Welcome to Burke’s latest adventure, Dinner in the Dark, which he calls “a five-course sensory experience dinner.” The special event series has been held, so far, in two of his restaurants.
The deal is you sip and sup blindfolded.
The dinners are prix fixe, and include wine and liquor pairings. Seating is by advance ticketing. Upcoming events take place on July 12 at Red Horse in Rumson; July 28 at the GOAT in Union Beach; and August 9 at Red Horse.
The concept of dining in blindfolds is not new. Burke says he himself “made an attempt 12 or 15 years ago” at the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival. “But it didn’t go as planned,” he relates. “I was burning summer hay so its sweet, woody aroma would tickle diners’ noses. The smoke alarms went off and the fire department stormed our dinner. Not what I had in mind. But I never let go of the idea.”
Burke’s new, smoke-free M.O. is designed “to make the evening all about surprise and discovery. It’s really empowering to learn how much your other senses can add to a meal when you can’t see what’s going on.”
The reason, Burke says, is that “tasting without seeing refocuses your taste buds on flavor and texture. You sniff the food, explore its crispness or creaminess. Your hearing is enhanced, too. So is your social radar. You chat with your neighbors without knowing what they look like, which is very cool.”
I attended Dinner in the Dark’s second event at the GOAT a couple weeks ago. At the dining room door, I was handed a serious eye mask to put on. Suddenly helpless, especially in high heels, I was led inside and helped into my seat.
The festivities began with Burke’s humorous introduction: “We’re all used to eating another way three times a day. Maybe four or five. Our goal is for you to experience food a whole new way. It’s about exploring every bite—once you can find it on your plate.
“Don’t be shy, eat with your hands. And lick your fingers. No one will see you doing it … except us, and we won’t snitch,” he promised. “Your first course is on your plate, and your napkin better be on your lap. Enjoy.”
That first course was four intriguing bites plated (Burke informed us) like numbers on a clock: at noon, three, six, and nine.
I quickly gave up on silverware, and went to Plan B: groping.
Noon seemed to be a Shore-worthy fried seafood something. Three o’clock was clearly bruschetta. Six, maybe a meatball. Nine … soft, tasted of truffles; a marvelous mystery. Our drink with that course tasted of gin and a fruit.
Next came more fried stuff with several sauces. I could identify various shellfish but was stumped by the vegetable entries … and fruit? Fried?
The wine was white, it seemed. My neighbor on the left agreed. We chatted. He had a kind voice and a good knowledge of food. I learned he had an interesting executive job with the Seeing Eye in Morristown. “Our clients, who are blind,” he said, “tend to truly savor their food.”
Next course. One dish had the texture of orzo or risotto topped by … hmm … a mini pizza slice? The wine with that course was another white. Sauvignon blanc? Chardonnay? My right-hand neighbor opined that it was Chard. He had a jovial laugh, and told me, “I like feeling like a kid sometimes. Regressing keeps you young and happy.”
Regressing was going on all around us: giggles, guffaws, exclamations of “Yum!” and “OMG!”
The next plate was our entrée. It held two succulent but incognito meats atop tasty purées. Plus a vegetable … about which I had no clue.
Our drink for that course was a cocktail containing, I felt certain, a brown liquor. Maybe a Manhattan? Or an Old Fashioned? Mr. Regressing on my right seemed sure we were drinking rye. (He turned out to be a psychologist.)
Our dessert was served with surprising instructions from Burke: Unmask yourselves.
I did, and looked around. Such happy New Jersey faces! Couples and groups of galpals. Everyone was wearing nice going-out clothes, yet no one had suffered a dry-cleaning emergency. I watched the table-hopping and exchange of business cards.
Dessert was served, in tall parfait glasses, recapturing every diner’s attention, visual now included. Here was a very large, very tempting ice cream sundae with all the toppings and more: whipped cream, cherry, cookies, candied fruit and nuts. My just-unleashed chocoholic eye spied some potential treasure at the base of the glass.
I dipped in with my long spoon. The ice cream was coffee-flavored, the cookies were ladyfingers: two elements of tiramisu. Later, Burke’s dessert master, Stuart Marx, confirmed my guess.
“Tiramisu has become kind of a cliché, but its flavors are so good,” he said. “I wanted to take it apart and put it back together in a fun way. So here’s a tiramisu sundae to play with. You can mix its components together or eat them one by one.”
I simply made my way to the bottom of the glass. And, yes, lots of exquisite dark chocolate beckoned like sunken treasure. Bittersweet and Valrhona brand, Marx confirmed.
The Dinner in the Dark menu, with all the details and photos of every dish, was distributed. Diners were amazed, myself included.
That unidentified frying object? Broccoli. That sweet round thing I took for a grape? An heirloom tomato!
And perhaps the biggest reveal of all: We’d been drinking exclusively New Jersey wines, from Old York Cellars in Ringoes, Hunterdon County. We’d all liked them.
The GOAT’s beverage director, Rich Karyczak, told me the backstory. “Chef Burke, and the whole team, are passionate about everything Jersey. And we want to let the world know that New Jersey wines have arrived. Our wineries are all about the grape, not trends or marketing.
“And certain grapes grow beautifully here, especially in South Jersey. And our winemakers are as skilled and inspired as anywhere.”
He added, “Our blindfolded diners have been absolutely shocked to find out where the wines they’ve been loving are from. But soon enough, the phrase ‘New Jersey wine’ won’t be so startling.”
I relished everything about this primal meal. (And am over my shame that the dish I took to be pork with rosemary was chicken with sage.) Regressing IS a good thing.