Ready, waiting and confused. Being disoriented is part of the fun of a blindfolded dinner. (Photos by Steve Coomes. Click to enlarge.)

Maybe I’m spoiled with all the great dining choices in Louisville, the wide variety of cuisines, the myriad twists on tastes and techniques that turn mere meals into events.

Perhaps I’m a bit jaded after all this time.

But why can’t dining be more fun here — anywhere — like it was last week at the Lights Out Dinner at Mayan Café?

Do we really need to wait for the Idea Festival (which came up with this notion of no-sight noshing) to print out a few branded cardboard blindfolds —utilizing the infamously unreliable elastic strap affixed to every cheap Halloween mask of yore — to produce such a stimulating way to take in our repast?

Why aren’t more restaurateurs doing these meals, and why aren’t customers rushing to get a seat at the few places they’ve done them? Is the notion of eating dinner blindfolded that radical?

Possibly to some, but so worth the plunge. It’s a blast!

Here’s what the sissy-sighted missed last week:

  • Chef-co-owner Bruce Ucan’s tremendous food. The guy is stone-cold clever in the kitchen, ever further fusing the earthy elements of Mayan cuisine with modern cooking techniques. (And lest you forget, Ucan is completely self-taught. He’s brilliant as a chef and an amazingly humble and friendly guy.)
  • Eating without seeing. You can’t explain much about the experience until you’ve experienced it. Your palate is challenged to discern what’s right on it without seeing it beforehand. And rarely does anyone at the table fully figure out what’s on the plate until, between each course, the chef raises the lights and explains the dish.

    Mayan Cafe chef Bruce Ucan explains the pork belly and blueberry cake first course to two of my tablemates.
  • Being robbed of sight leads to funny things: Everyone begins talking louder because they can’t lip read, and, if you sneak a peek at your tablemates trying to eat blindfolded, you see how clumsy everyone looks scooping aimlessly around their plates.
  • You get to hear the, “Oh, no, gross!” reactions of people, like my sister, who wasn’t happy to learn one course that she actually deemed “pretty good” contained bison tongue.

“Just watching everyone trying to eat … it’s hilarious!” said Anne Shadle, Ucan’s partner in Mayan Café, and its front-of-the-house manager. “I wish someone were shooting a video.”

As each course arrived, a server would announce the paired cocktail was to our right and that a plate had been placed in front of us. If a fork was required, a server would gently put it into our hands. After that, you’re on your own to eat, sip, savor and guess what the hell you’re eating. Sometimes you guess correctly, but often not.

Sometimes the drink you get tastes a bit weird until you taste it again with the food—and sometimes vice versa.

“It’s partly about helping us slow down to think about what we’re eating,” Shadle told the gathering of almost 40 people. Sight-deprived and seemingly deafer than when we arrived, Shadle constantly had to clink fork against water glass to take charge of the increasingly garrulous group. “The point is to make it fun and different.”

And indeed it was.

The menu:

Course 1: Pork belly with spiced blueberry cake, served alongside an orange Old Fashioned cocktail. (Anyone who’s read much of my work knows I’m not a bourbon fan. But this drink paired with this food was delicious.)

Course 2: Skate picada sautéed with capers and lime, paired with carrot-infused gin, poblano pepper juice and lime. (All could tell it was fish, but no one guessed “skate,” (a winged saltwater bottom feeding fish), yet everyone loved it. Ucan said, “It’s so easy to prepare. I marinated it in lime juice 4 hours, like ceviche, and then—sss, sss—in the pan,” he said, flipping his hand back and forth to demonstrate a quick sauté. “I wasn’t sure people would like it that well.”

The carrot-infused gin cocktail … insanely good and innovative. Hopefully it’ll wind up on the menu there.

Course 3: Bison tongue gordita with Kenny’s jalapeno jack cheese, paired with a Micheleda Cubano made from Negra Modelo, Valentina salsa, Worcestershire sauce and lime. (No one guessed bison, but several guessed pork or beef. But all within earshot of me were asking, “What the hell?” when sipping the Micheleda, which is a bit like a spicy beer-based bloody Mary. It paired really well with the unctuous and starchy gordita.)

Course 4: Pan dulce de elote laced with fresh mango puree and chocolate mole ice cream, paired with Ca’rossa Birbet sparkling red. (Yes, chocolate mole ice cream. “I’ve been playing with the flavors for that for a long time,” Ucan said to the group and added, “Did you like it?” Duh! Incredible.) This course was probably the most challenging to eat since ice cream behaves badly when assaulted by a blind diner armed with a spoon. Just ask my wife, who didn’t know for a second or two that her scoop of tan-hued ice cream had leapt into her lap—onto white pants, ladies, white!

Sound like fun? Definitely a crowd pleaser. You could have stood across the street in front of Decca and heard that happy cacophony.

While I know putting on such a dinner is a challenge for a restaurant (service is much more intense and done in the near-dark, while the kitchen has to alter food temps and shapes and portion sizes to make eating blindfolded somewhat easier) I can only hope another operator will take their shot in the dark sooner than later.

At $80 per person (gratuity and tax included), that made for a $2,500-plus gross event for the restaurant — not including pre-event cocktails.

That’s a win-win in my book.

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Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.

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