Nearly everyone comes to us by gift-card at first. It’s okay – we understand. And it doesn’t matter, because we’ve rapidly built a crowd of regulars, who come time after time to taste the adventure. But I won’t bore you with hard-sell – you’re already through the door, and that’s the most vital step.
Now for the rules. We have a few – we have to be quite strict, otherwise the experience is – not ruined, because in a way it’s what you make it – but a little altered from how we’d prefer, because we know what we’re doing, and damn! We’re good. I’ll give you time to read. I don’t know whether you noticed the bright blue of my eyes, or the milky opacities across the pupils. I heard you pause as you looked at me, and I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck, so I think you probably did, but it’s okay – it’s part of what makes me so good at my job. I stand in an open, relaxed position, with an easy smile on my face, to relax you.
I hear a soft click as you pick up the ballpoint pen and my fingertips on the desk register a thrum of ink and nib as you scrawl your acquiescence. Now I have you. This should be fun – new clients are my favourites.
I walk around the desk and indicate a locker where you can stash your coat, shoes and bag. Soft, metallic scrapings tell me you’ve understood, and I’m pleased to note that you’re taking care to move quietly. From now on there will be silence, communication by touch, and an experience the likes of which you may never have imagined possible.
Stepping forward, I take your hand. It’s important that I take care of mine, given their role. Short manicured fingernails, smooth skin, and the ability to guide you with firm, precise movements. Your palm is slightly damp and I can hear a stifled giggle under your quickened breath. It’s okay – this is new and very unusual – you’re bound to be a bit nervous, but you’ll soon trust me. I direct you towards the door of our room, opening it wide enough that you can see some of the interior – a low recumbent chair, which will hold you cushioned in a neutral position, resting back a little with your feet up; and a trolley of some kind, draped over with a dark, cloth cover.
We step through the door and it begins to swing shut behind us, plunging us both into velvet darkness. Your grip on my hand tightens, and I slowly lead you across to the chair, where you can find it with your toe. I place both your hands upon it, and allow you to stretch out, re-establishing its shape in your mind, before you climb in. As you settle, I pad quietly around to my station, and take my place on a low kneeler between the trolley and your head. Once you’re still, I find your hand and press a crisp, linen napkin into it.
Feather-light, I cup the right side of your face in my hand. You aren’t surprised because the instructions told you this would happen – I need to be able to tell where your mouth is, so I don’t spill anything down you, and in addition, I will be able to feel your reaction to each item on the menu, giving me an idea of what to offer next – but you still recoil a little, then shift your head a little, withdrawing then pressing your face against my hand a couple of times and getting used to the intimacy of the hold. I wait while you relax again.
The first thing you’ll notice the warmth on your lips and the tip of your nose, followed by the touch of a thick, rounded rim of china against your lower lip. Obedient, you open your mouth and I spill in a mouthful of warm broth, seasoned to perfection with hints of pepper, fresh parsley and winter vegetables. One more mouthful and then a change – a light, crunchy cracker, which leaves a buttery film on your tongue and crumbs in the corners of your teeth.
I wait as you run your tongue around your mouth, and then tap your lower lip with the next offering – a chilly slice of cucumber, dotted on top with creamed horseradish sauce. You open wider but the cucumber still grazes the sides of your mouth, before you sink your teeth into its crispness and the heavy heat of the horseradish rolls back and ascends your nasal cavities, coming to rest behind the bridge of your nose, its intensity almost painful. Chewing faster, the cool vegetable soothes you and the heat wears off. There’s a sudden movement with the napkin and I move my hand away to let you blow your nose. I give you a little more time with the fading warmth before cupping your jaw once more in my hand.
The next scent is completely familiar – an unmistakable citrus tang, materialising into a thin wedge of lemon, its striated pockets of sour zinginess bursting in your mouth as you nibble the flesh away from the skin. Before the last traces of juice are gone, an unusual, flat shape is pressed against your lower lip, and you open to receive a rolled ball of boiled rice, atop a sliver of something which leaves a light, woody flavour behind (and which you later realise was a bamboo spoon).
A quick succession of small spiced spheres, pressed against your circled lips to be allowed entry, turn out to be roasted chick-peas, which crumble into dusky nuttiness, deepened by the earthy tones of cumin and coriander seed. Something soft and leafy requires that you open your mouth quite wide to let it in, and biting down, heady peppermint oils seem to fill your whole head, whilst the sharp, fruity tones of lime zest are tempered by hard, treacly grains of brown sugar. They crunch between your teeth, leaving spikes of sweetness as you work the leaves into a swallowable mass. I pause, letting you seek out every last piece of minty freshness, before pressing a freezing, unnatural shape to your lips – a small ice-cube of coconut milk; faint, tropical creaminess combining with the crack and squeak and shattermelt as you chew it.
Tangy, pickled ginger comes next, in thin, juicy slices, delivered on chopsticks, immersing the fragrance of the coconut in a pungent warmth of flavour, oddly juxtaposed with the still-cool temperature. A smooth crescent of glass feeds you sips of ice-cold mineral water, refreshing your palate and cleansing your mouth of all but a residual spiciness.
Another pause, then something warm and flat with spiky edges is brought to your mouth – gruyere cheese, grated and crisped into thin, crunchable morsels in the oven. Two are fed to you, and like wafers, you receive them on your tongue before tilting your head expectantly for more. This time, a piece of potato, boiled in saffron water until soft and fluffy (and, could you see it, an intense golden-yellow) is given to you on a fine-tined fork. It has a peculiar, earthy perfume, which works well with the neutrality of the potato, lifting it almost to the level of ‘fragrant’.
A tap on the lips from a roughly worked wooden spoon has you opening your mouth without question, and a quick spoonful of chilli jam is inserted. The wooden spoon is withdrawn, and you encounter a moment of intense, smokey, sweetness before the heat of the chillies takes hold and sends you reeling in surprise. I can hear your breathing pattern alter as you gulp down cooling air and try to breathe it back out without increasing the warmth on your tongue. The napkin is pressed into service again, this time against your eyes, and I can hear sniffs as your nose runs, and a couple of small, involuntarily squeaks, which escape you. I grin, preparing my next mouthful: a huge, heaped, plastic spoonful of plain ice-cream – freshly made, decadent, and studded with nuggets of frozen cream. Feeling the icy-softness against your burning lips, you stretch forward, greedily engulfing the giant mouthful, ignoring the dribbles down your chin as you soothe the heat with sweet, melting cold.
After a quick dab around your chin, a shot of hot coffee is offered; a rich, dark, roasted flavour, lightly salted to remove the bitterness and replace it with a creamier finish. A cube of almond biscotti leaves crumbs on your lips, which you lick after crunching it into sweet nothing, the slivers of almond releasing their scent to mingle with the clinging coffee-ness.Sensing you swallow, a chilled shard of dark chocolate is offered next; of such high qualitiy that the intense cacau seems almost fruity, and the flavour lingers, mixing with the coffee and almond to make a heady combination.
A small, deep, metal spoon slides in next, parting your lips and slipping over the tip of your tongue, your top lip dipping into the contents. I tilt it to pour a slow ooze of honey onto your tongue, then continue to hold the spoon in your mouth, forcing you to work around its shape to get your mouthful, probing its depths to get every last, sticky, sunshiney drop.
The edge of a soft, sanded-glass tumbler is presented, brim-full of milk. Plain and simple, it rinses the honey without overpowering it, neutralising it but retaining the gentle sweetness. You take several gulps of the cold, drink, tilting back to avoid drips.
Another short break is allowed to pass, before the penultimate offering – a fabulous, decadently large, vanilla ganache truffle, shelled in thick, white chocolate, allowing your teeth to bite, crack and then glide through it, as you wisely divide it in half, the better to mete out the richness.
An incredibly fine glass is presented next; so thin it seems as though it would break if you were to push too hard against it with your lips. From just below its surface, small carbon bubbles zing up and pop against your upper lip. A dot of oil on the rim fills your mouth with a deep,citrus musk, whilst the drink itself is light, floral and headily scented. Together, the effervescent drink and the lemon oil seem to combine to create a flavour so perfumed it tastes almost intense as the dawn-scent found only in the most glorious roses.
I give you a few minutes to appreciate the flavour and relax into it – not everyone appreciates such a flowery end to the meal, and I have my trolley full of tricks, just in case. You seem fine, though, and after five minutes for you to ruminate,. I take your hand and guide you out of the chair, back to upright, then over to the door.
I expect you squint as the light pours in, even though it’s really not that bright (so I’ve heard).
We step out into the foyer once again and I smile warmly at where I hope you are, gesturing to you to return to your locker to collect your belongings. I can hear that your steps are slower, dreamier, and far more comfortable than when you arrived. I feel satisfied that you enjoyed yourself and am gratified with a note in my hand as we shake goodbye.
You leave, perhaps noticing that above the doorway, set in silver over the dark paintwork, is the legend “Now you’ve tasted magic…”
I wonder whether or not you’ll return?