Tonight I am dining in a private room, and though that might sound fancy, it's not as luxurious as it seems. This room is devoid of light. An intense, inky blackness pervades like an impenetrable fog.
This is dining in the dark, a longstanding tradition at Fort Lauderdale's Market 17.
You'll need a reservation to feast beyond the thick velvet curtains that keep the small, 12-seat room shrouded in darkness. Those drapes also muffle the sound of the restaurant's main dining room beyond, while pop music plays softly in the background, its cheery rhythm a stark contrast to the oppressive push of blackness.
A creeping feeling of claustrophobia can be unsettling at first. You might notice your breath soften while you wait for the server, who wears night-vision goggles, to explain the experience. I had to occupy myself by repeatedly reaching for my water glass.
The dark, he says, forces other senses to guide you through the experience.
Expect to become acutely aware of the food, whose arrival is announced not only by the deep baritone of the server's voice but also by the dish's perfume.
The first of my four courses makes its presence known with a quick burst of peppery zest that seeps into my nostrils, tickling my nose with a familiar, tingling heat. It's followed by the zing of vinegar, the sharpness of fresh-cut herbs, and the warm toastiness of something fresh from the fryer.
If you've opted, as most guests do, to forgo forks and knives, your server will instruct you to feel your food.
I begin by timidly prodding the plate to separate one chunk or glob from the next. In the first dish, cold slivers have a floppy weight — like stubby, thick noodles. My fingers travel to a crisp, thin round propped along the side of the bowl. Then I plunge into something wet, slippery, gelatinous.
"It's beef tartare," my dining companion says, his voice piercing the blackness.
When I take a bite, I realize he's right. The various elements create images in my mind: raw beef, mustard grain, cracked peppercorn, pickled cucumber, chives, raw egg. I pick out a single potato chip.
What began as discomfort quickly becomes elated anticipation for the next course. Each dish is a riddle for the palate. You begin to appreciate individual elements on the plate: how the various ingredients taste and work together and how texture can inspire mental photographs. By the end, the dark is a comfortable companion, a brief hiatus from modern-day diversions.
And that's the kind of experience Market 17 co-owners and siblings Kirsta and Aaron Grauberger hope to create.
The duo, raised in the ski resort town of Breckenridge, Colorado, always knew they would work together one day — they just didn't know how. After relocating to Florida in the early 2000s, both transitioned into hospitality. Kirsta would eventually go into management, first at Sundy House in Delray Beach and then Johnny V's off Las Olas Boulevard. Aaron joined Darden Restaurants at Seasons 52 in Boca Raton, where a love for wine grew into a newfound passion.
Both siblings became certified sommeliers.
In March 2010, at their father's urging, Kirsta and Aaron decided to go into business for themselves. They launched their first restaurant in the Portside Center on the west side of Fort Lauderdale's 17th Street bridge, naming it Market 17.
"We opened very ambitiously," Kirsta says. "We threw everything we loved about the industry into the concept, from 15-course tasting menus to tableside ceviche and, of course, the dining in the dark."
Some of the ideas have changed over the years. The farmers' market they intended to host never came to fruition. The tableside ceviche ceased, too labor-intensive on a busy night in a 150-seat restaurant. Though there's still the option of a tasting menu, today it's a choice of four or six courses.
And there's still the option to dine in the dark.
"I'd tried it in Europe and fell in love with it," Kirsta says.
Today, what defines Market 17 is not the novelty of dining in darkness, but rather the restaurant's visible consistencies: innovative food from a longtime chef and hundreds of unique and exotic wines.
More than 350 bottles are offered, ranging from a smooth and sweet Kerner from Italy's Alto Adige to even lesser-known Marmajuelo, a yellow-skinned and aromatic variety grown exclusively on the Canary Islands.
Although the restaurant opened with former Sundy House chef Daniel Ramos, it has since made its mark with four-year-strong executive chef Lauren DeShields, who has brought to life the siblings' vision of farm-to-table through her lively, inventive fare.
There are some regulars: You'll always find a ceviche, beef tartare, and Key West pink shrimp. Caught locally and delivered daily, the seafood remains a central focus, the best of Florida's local bounty, DeShields says.
This summer brought lots of snapper and swordfish paired with varying accoutrements such as sweet-potato gnocchi in a kale-and-almond pesto, and sesame sticky rice with pickled shiitakes and crisp toasted lentils.
Game, such as ostrich and antelope, is another perennial favorite. Whole beasts are broken down in-house and used in everything from dry-cured meats and house sausages to salami and pâté.
On a recent night, it was a bison strip-loin entrée, whose meat was expertly cooked, cut into ruby-red medallions, and plated alongside thick cubes of roasted sunchokes, tender rainbow carrots, and sliced apple in a caper/brown-butter sauce topped with a crown of wispy dill.
It's this winning combination of original fare, rare wines, and attentive service that has helped the restaurant stand the test of time.
"People have been coming here for years, and whether they dine in the dark or in the dining room, they tell us the food only gets better," Kirsta says. "We owe a lot of it to being different and following our instincts."
1850 SE 17th St., Fort Lauderdale; 954-835-5507; market17.net. Dinner 4:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Market ceviche $16
Beef tartare $17
Florida swordfish $37
Red snapper $37
Bison strip loin $46
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