Sugar Mountain's Sensory Restaurant 'Feels Like Some Fucked-Up Bunker Shit'

24 January 2017 | 4:44 pm | Stephanie Liew

"Once you put your finger on one flavour it seems to morph into something else entirely."

Food by Peter Gunn, soundtrack by S U R V I V E, art by Daniel Arsham

Sensory explores the relationship between sight, sound, taste, smell and touch — hence the apt name. In its first incarnation in 2016, the experience was much more focused on how the other senses complemented the food; it was a sit-down affair throughout, in a room decked out with trippy black and white art, the lights and music changing with each course.

So it was with some surprise and great pleasure to realise Sensory has upped the ante this year, having been fleshed out into a full theatrical experience.

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After checking our names at the door and receiving a seat number, we walk into a waiting room and are all given lab coats with our numbers written on the back. We are asked to take off our shoes. Once all participants are ready, we are led into the next room. It's all white, including a large white table in the middle. On top of it is an array of foods and tableware, painted white: lobsters, bread, grapes in a bowl, other fruits scattered around, a roast chicken, candles and a salt and pepper shaker. It calls to mind a European still life painting.

The first course is brought around: salt and pepper lettuce on ice. The bland description is misleading: this little heart of lettuce is so crisp, icy, spicy; there's more than regular S&P sprinkled on it, and we grapple with saltiness, sweetness, sourness. 

It's very warm in this white room, and the bright light becomes warmer. White turns to beige, and the light flickers dimmer and brighter, while the music is mostly playful: chimes, bells, light percussion. It's unobtrusive, moving naturally with the rest of the proceedings (as all brilliant soundtracks do), and in that way it is easy forget to listen closely to its subtle changes. Something about the cascading melodies and tinkering tones suggests influences from traditional East Asian music.

The white table is hoisted up with chains revealing beautiful translucent blue glasses sitting in… a sandpit?! The sand is very fine, and it is blue. The light changes to blue, too. We each take a glass, and find pickled onion and mustard seeds in them. Our waiters come around to pour plum sour soup into our glasses. It is, indeed, extremely sour — but fruity and peppery as well. As with the lettuce, once you put your finger on one flavour it seems to morph into something else entirely. The flavour is so tangy the soup almost tastes like a sauce, but how many times have you wanted to drink the remnants of a dipping sauce yet refrained because it's not really socially acceptable? Exactly.

"We can't ignore the loud crashes and glitchy scratches. It sounds like things falling down in the attic, like the monster in Stranger Things running and stumbling, in search of its prey."

As the music becomes more eerie — the curious characteristics turning darker as droning noises and xylophone-like strikes are introduced — a very tall lady in a long, blue dress and flowing face covering walks slowly around the sandpit, a rake held upright like a procession flag, and proceeds to oh-so-slowly and deliberately rake the sand lengthways. Meanwhile, another lady emerges, waiting patiently in an identical outfit — except she is very short, and holding a white bonsai tree. Tall blue lady rakes the sand thrice width-ways, short blue lady then makes her way around the sandpit and places the bonsai in the middle of it. Meanwhile, all the participants are filming away on their smartphones, not entirely sure what will happen next.

We are then led into the main dining room and seated according to our numbers. The only lights in here are like wandering mini spotlights, constantly moving in a circular motion like they're searching for something. Luckily, in the middle of the long tables, on top of large grey stones, sit what looks like construction glasses, each adorned with lights on either side. We all take selfies and photos of each other wearing these glasses because they make us look like creepy aliens or mad scientists.

The music is no longer in the background now; we can't ignore the loud crashes and glitchy scratches. It sounds like things falling down in the attic, like the monster in Stranger Things running and stumbling in search of its prey. The music and its volume — it's just that bit too loud to have a conversation without projecting your voice a bit — combined with the dark room and all the torch glasses, feels like some fucked-up bunker shit. We're all stoked, to be honest.

The main meal is brought over to us: ocean trout with chorizo and zucchini. This dish matches the music well, because both things elicit a "WTF is happening here" response. It's intense: the soft, smooth, fresh trout at odds with the salty bite and bitterness of the pureed chorizo spread through the middle. The slightly sweet (well, neutral) zucchini brings them together somewhat. What's a step further than umami? Because it is that. Eating this dish causes a lot of confusion, yet we're all left feeling satisfied. My fellow tablemates all agree the fish was terrific. The monster in the attic simmers down.

Last but not least, dessert! It's mango topped with cacao nibs and caramelised whey. Now this — this is art. And while it is certainly an odd and inventive dish, it's pleasant and safe, and the music, as if to reassure us that the freakiest of shit is over, becomes gently atmospheric once again. It's like making it safely out of the Upside Down. That soft, almost fluffy mango piece (what did they do to it, marinate in syrup?) with shavings of whey, like the most smooth caramel toffee you'll ever have — just a touch chewy before it melts on your tongue - with just a bit of crunch from the nibs, has us floating on air. That texture! At the conclusion of this sweet epiphany of sorts, the waitstaff pull back curtains on either side of the room, revealing mirrors. The monsters behind the walls — were they us all along?! Read into this action however you please. Some people are so shocked at this turn of events that they leave (also, there is no more food and it's the end of proceedings). The music that leads us all back to reality is soft and revelatory. We will never be the same after that.