Experience piece – coursework in the style of Time Out – 08/02/13
Voices murmur around me from bodies I cannot see. My outstretched hand gropes the back of a chair. Lowering myself into it, I fumble for the table in front of me and call out to my friend. Alarm bells should be ringing, but far from being petrified, I am enjoying being disoriented.
The concept behind Dans Le Noir? is simple: a restaurant where diners eat in total darkness. The experience provides diners with a taste of what it is like to be blind. I cannot stress enough how dark it is. All phones and glow in the dark watches are safely locked in the lit waiting area before you are allowed in the dining room.
Before entering the dining room, we are introduced to our waiter, Jack, who is young, very tall and charming. He is blind, as are all Dans Le Noir?’s waiters or ‘guides’. We form a conga line behind Jack, and I hold onto his shoulder as he parts the thick velvet curtains to the dining area.
Plunged into darkness, I grip Jack’s shoulder a little tighter as he steers us through the tables. My friend digs her hands into my jumper as we shuffle forward. I’m wary of stretching my other hand out too far for fear of poking somebody.
Once Jack has helped us to our seats at the shared table, he double-checks our order. Each menu is a surprise, the options being green (vegetarian), red (meat), blue (fish) and white (chef’s special). What each dish contains is revealed after you have eaten. I opt for the green menu while my fellow diner chooses red. Not being big daytime drinkers, we ask for water instead of wine.
However, water presents us with a new challenge. Jack places the carafe in the middle of the table as he removes our wine glasses. “Enjoy the water pouring, ladies,” he says with what I imagine is a wry smile. Incredibly, I manage to pour two full glasses without spilling a drop.
The cutlery beneath our fingers is heavy and the napkins feel like linen. They could be hideously stained, but we wouldn’t know. A calming mix of Zero 7 and Cinematic Orchestra plays softly in the background. It suits the relaxed atmosphere.
“This is so weird,” my friend and I repeat to one another. Obviously we have no idea what the room looks like, but judging by the source of the voices, it is an L-shape. A loud group of high-pitched, camp men squeal from a table somewhere to my right; the couple sharing ours, to my left, are enjoying their red menus.
The starters arrive, accompanied by a waft of basil. We begin to stab at our plates with our forks. Tentatively placing a cube of something chilled in my mouth, I chew and expect the worst. At first I think it’s squash: sweet, earthy, covered in a tangy dressing. Then I realise it’s beetroot. I prod the contents of the plate to ascertain where the food is. After three failed attempts to spear another piece of anything, I abandon cutlery and dig in with my fingers. It feels freeing.
My fingertips wander across the plate, finding pickled artichoke hearts. The delicate rocket leaves, slippery with dressing, are particularly tricky to grasp. There’s an illicit thrill knowing that you are eating like a messy child and nobody else can see. Table manners and dining etiquette are long gone by the time I’m licking my fingers clean. My friend’s red menu starter is something she can’t quite work out. She thinks it is a pâté. Whatever it is, she enjoys it.
“How are we doing on the starters, ladies?” Jack enquires, apparently from nowhere. “Reaching in on your right, Lizzy,” he says as he removes my plate.
The room feels full now. It is surprisingly loud. Every now and then the convivial buzz of conversation is interrupted by a guide shouting “coming through”, presumably to avoid collisions with other guides.
The main courses arrive and I paw hesitantly at my plate. The food is warm but not piping hot, for which my fingertips are grateful. The first shape I come across is soft and marshmallowy. A tangy goat cheese soufflé. Beside it I find puff pastry encasing sweet roasted peppers and onions. Completing the trio is a small heap of couscous drizzled with yoghurt dressing. Admitting defeat with the couscous, I use my fork to eat most of it. The whole thing is delicious: each texture and flavour adds another dimension to the dish.
Dessert is rice pudding with poached apple. Slightly too sweet, but the spiced apple is perfect. Once we have finished, Jack guides us back to the light. We emerge from the dining room having lost all sense of time. My friend discovers her starter was steak tartare, her main a mixture of beef, veal and venison. She had no idea.
The darkness is disconcerting yet entirely liberating at the same time, encouraging you to concentrate on flavours and textures. Bar one accidental eye poke – my fault, when I was patting my friend’s head – the meal has been a truly eye-opening experience.
Dans Le Noir?
30-31 Clerkenwell Green
020 7253 1100
Price: £42-£51. Concessions available.
Not recommended for anyone suffering from claustrophobia.