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COVER STORY

Extreme Dining

September 06, 2007|Margaret Wappler; Liam Gowing; August Brown

"I will not eat oysters," Woody Allen once remarked. "I want my food dead -- not sick, not wounded -- dead!" We're guessing Mr. Allen would forgo the dining adventures below, which include eating a live octopus. And crickets. And food so hot your throat does two consecutive cartwheels and a back flip. Sick of being gastronomic wusses, we challenged ourselves to eat like the other half eats (or at least those who partake of the bugs and live fish options prevalent in places such as Asia) -- because living on the edge doesn't have to mean scaling Mt. Everest; you can push the limits by simply opening your mouth . . . and swallowing.

The unseeing scene

Opaque in West Hollywood's Hyatt hotel has been serving dinners in the dark on the weekends for two years with no advertising, only word of mouth. The dining room is truly, absurdly pitch-black, like when a cartoon character walks into a dark room and shuts the door.

Before I was led into Opaque's noir state, I ordered my three-course meal from one of four menus in the bright lobby. Then I put my hand on my server Michael Headley's shoulder and followed him down maybe four or five zigzagging hallways.

Dining in the dark started in Switzerland in 1999 when a blind minister opened the first restaurant staffed entirely with blind waiters. Opaque's owner, Berliner Ben Uphues, followed suit; all of the servers are visually impaired recruits from the Braille Institute. "It's one of the best jobs I've had," Headley said.

Once we got to the table, Headley instructed me to place my hands on the laminate tablecloth (all the better for the mess I would make) and remain still -- he was pulling out my chair. I heard other diners talking softly all around me. After cautiously lowering, I was seated, but the challenges kept coming: Find my water glass. Find bread and butter. Keep track of water glass. Don't stick fingers in butter. And so on.

"The dining in the dark experience can make some people really anxious," hostess Joyce Wong said. "They feel out of control." Every so often a few can't take it and leave. Yet most diners acclimate, relax and revel in all the nonvisual sensory information you might otherwise take for granted. Eavesdropping on other diners is more fun when you can't see them. The food is pretty average, but every bite is an adventure -- fascinatingly foreign. Inhibitions are lost. Go ahead, scoop up the rest of that chicken breast and gnaw on it like a primitive, right there in the razzmatazz of Sunset Strip. Being seen is so overrated.

Opaque, Hyatt West Hollywood, 8401 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (800) 710-1270, darkdining.com. Price: $99 for a three-course dinner, not including alcohol, tax or tip.

-- Margaret Wappler

It's alive!!!

Fans of the ultra-violent Park Chan-wook film "Oldboy" know there are times when you just "want to eat something alive." Fortuitously, Angelenos who experience such cravings can have their blood lust satisfied at Ma San, a K-Town institution since 1972 that specializes in fresh seafood . . . really fresh seafood.

Large, centrally located and utilitarian aquariums housing fairly hideous monkfish, eels and gnarly-looking sea urchins reinforce that Ma San is more about the food than the atmosphere. And the Korean-language menu, staff and patrons confirm that there will be no fusion dishes available, just the kind of legitimate Korean meals one might find in Seoul or Pusan, birthplace of avuncular chef-owner Alexander Lee.

Arriving on the scene ignorant of Korean, and finding no English-speaking servers, I might have had problems cornering my prey. But I came prepared, armed with the magic words "san nag-jik": live octopus.

The name is a bit of a misnomer -- since the preparation involves relieving the poor 'pus of his bulbous head, it should probably be called "dying octopus" -- but there's no mistaking the lively tentacles the waitress politely delivers. They're moving, pulsing, writhing.

Fortified by a few shots of soju cocktail, I attempt to pick a segment up, but even with the chopsticks provided, it's difficult. The suction cups are still working furiously, forming a tight vacuum against the plate. With a little elbow grease, however, I wrestle it free, dip it in the obligatory sauce -- sesame oil and salt -- and pop it into my mouth.

Minus the sauce, the taste is almost neutral. This dish is all about consistency. If you can imagine a particularly tough and animated gummy bear, you've got the idea. With reports of Korean diners actually dying while attempting to swallow this dish -- the Heimlich maneuver rendered useless by the cephalopod's suction-cup-on-epiglottis technology -- it's a gummy bear I chew thoroughly. And with one determined gulp, it's all over, except for the guilt.

The soju takes care of that.

Ma San, 2851 W. Olympic Blvd., L.A., (213) 388-3314. Price: $25 for a plate of octopus.

-- Liam Gowing

Hot enough for ya?

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