Sunday, March 4, 2012

Dans le Noir?, 2nd March

Stephen asked me afterwards if I had enjoyed my meal and I said no. Yet I'm really pleased I went to Dans le Noir? It is a completely unique and interesting overall experience. 

Dans le Noir? is a restaurant where you sit in the pitch black to eat. If you think you have experienced complete darkness before, you haven't. You literally cannot see your hand in front of your face, not even when it's touching your own nose. The idea is to let you have an insight into the world that blind people inhabit every day, to gain an awareness of the problems not being able to see presents and to heighten your senses so that you have a dining experience unlike any other. 

This isn't the kind of place you just pop to because you fancy a bite to eat, not least because a two course meal is £41. So we went for a friend's birthday. While looking forward to it, all of us were a little anxious about how we would react to not being able to see anything, not even each other. No light is allowed into the room at all - you are allocated a locker when you get in to store any light emitting belongings, including watches that glow in the dark. We didn't know whether we'd be able to relax in the total darkness and I wondered whether the room would be filled with hushed tones because my first instinct in the dark is to adopt a 'pillow talk voice' appropriate for the moments before sleep, or the cinema. And would we physically be able to accomplish eating a meal without spilling everything all over ourselves or one another without being able to see?

To add to the mystery and the fun, you have a choice of menus but you don't know exactly what you will be served. You tell the person who takes your order of any allergies you might have, and  they will adapt the menu to make allowances for that, but otherwise you have no say in what you're eating, other than choosing which general menu you want. Your choices are a fish option, meat option, vegetarian or mixed fish and meat, and saying whether you want starter, main and/or dessert. Stephen and I went for the meat main and dessert, our other three dining companions went for the vegetarian option with dessert, figuring this would lessen the chances of any nasty surprises.

We went upstairs for a cocktail in the bar (which has light). In the spirit of things we chose the 'surprise' cocktail which was disappointing for me as it seemed to be Malibu-based, and I don't like coconut. The atmosphere was surprisingly lively, with them playing upbeat house music. Perhaps they expect people to be heading on to Fabric up the road afterwards and want to help get you in the mood. Shortly we were told our table was ready and we went back downstairs, half-drunk cocktails in hand.

At the entrance, we were introduced to our waiter Derek. All the waiters at Dans le Noir are blind and know the layout of the restaurant inside out. They are your eyes. You form a line and each put a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of you, with your waiter at the head and then you do the slowest conga ever through two heavy curtains into the abyss (otherwise known as to your table). 

Walking into the darkness feels more than odd. I've walked into pitch black once before when the Southbank had a weird sort of installation there a couple of years ago, but it was for no more than 5 minutes. Going into the black dining area you are faced with the fact that you won't be able to see for at least an hour. But your mind and your eyes don't readily accept this. You can feel your eyes trying to focus on something and your brain telling you that soon your eyes will adjust and you'll be able to make something out. But you don't. 

Inside the Dining Room
We were seated on a table of ten but our table wasn't full. However, there were plenty of other diners, and they were all quite lively, which meant a pretty sociable atmosphere. Derek explained to us we had a knife and fork on a napkin in front of us, a large tumbler for water, and a smaller one for wine. We had ordered one bottle of wine and a bottle of tap water which Derek brought to us, leaving us to figure out how to actually decant it into our glasses. This is where the fun began - we had to devise a system and work together to ensure we all got some wine, hopefully of roughly the same amount, and without spilling any. Hats off to my friends Owen and Ricky for accomplishing this.

And then the food arrived. You are encouraged to guess at what you are eating and at the end of the meal your menu is revealed to you. I'm sure you would imagine, and you are correct, that eating without seeing anything is rather difficult. While drinking in the dark felt almost second nature, eating was a very different matter. Almost immediately I dropped some into my lap. You don't know where on the plate to aim your cutlery and cutting was a task almost impossible. More than once I ended up picking up the meat and biting into it that way. Hell, no one can see you. Knives and forks don't tell you where things are, so you start using your fingers to test the waters. There were several forkfuls I brought to my mouth that were forkfuls of nothing. It's surprisingly stressful. And this is why I said I didn't enjoy the meal. Once you found the food, it was really good. But I know I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I could have seen what I was doing, cut it up and chosen in what order I put it in my mouth. This was literally stabbing in the dark.

And then you weren't even sure when you were finished! And at those prices, you definitely wanted to be eating everything on the plate. As we ate we tried to guess what we were consuming. As soon as the meat plates came we could all smell pork and so I assumed it was a dish of pork in different guises. I was certain there was pork belly, and Stephen said some of it was black pudding and then there were a couple of other bits, which I assumed were slices of roasted pork. There were some types of greens and definitely mushroom (this is what I had picked up off my lap so I made out the shape). And also, a delicious jus.

The veggie eaters thought there was some kind of pancake, something cold they couldn't decipher and weren't too fond of (aubergine raita) and something that was possibly pasta (it turned out to be gnocchi).

Not too shortly after we all guessed we were done with our mains, Derek brought us the desserts. Utterly fantastic. We guessed this one spot on - slabs of white chocolate, a chocolate mousse and raspberry jelly, with one fresh raspberry. There was far too little of it and again, I'll admit, my fingers got a lot more involved than they would in an ordinary restaurant.

More than an hour had passed in the blink of an eye (or should I say it felt like we were in an eye blink that lasted an hour) when we emerged back into the dimly lit foyer and got to see what we'd had for dinner. The pork belly had thrown us completely and we had no idea we had also eaten steak and duck breast! It is amazing how depriving yourself of sight can so confuse the other senses. 

We all had rather dry eyes as all throughout the hour we couldn't stop ourselves from straining to see. It was so dark in there I couldn't even tell how open my eyes were. I dread to think what I would have looked like on the infrared cameras they have for security purposes. I'm sure I kept my eyes half closed throughout the meal - what's the use in keeping them open when you can't see? At the end, and even now, I felt a burning desire to be shown the state of my plate at the end, and what mess I might have made of my surroundings.

The actual dining experience was much easier than we all thought it would be from a social point of view. You can adapt and get used to things so easily. Conversation flowed freely and easily, at normal volume, if not a touch louder. I found myself trying to add inflection to my voice and even more warmth to my laugh in order to compensate for the lack of body language and the others said they also were doing the same.

The total bill came to £60 which, for two courses, one glass of wine and a cocktail makes it one of the most expensive meals I've ever had. But you're really paying for the experience, and it truly is an experience you're unlikely to get anywhere else. Unless you go to another restaurant in the dark I suppose. Or feel like eating in your flat with a heavy curtain over the window. Each to his own.

Dans Le Noir on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Find the menu & restaurant information on Zomato

1 comment:

  1. Love that you included a snapshot of the dining room interiors :P

    Even though you said you didn't enjoy it, I still really want to go! When I can afford it ...


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