A little while ago I went to what, I think, is the most interesting restaurant I have been. It is in London and it is called Dans Le Noir ? The name gives away a bit but here is my experience of it. This is a restaurant that is, as the name indicates, completely in the dark. When I say in the dark, I don’t mean like your room with the lights off and the curtains drawn on a winter night. I mean pitch black, so black that you’ve never …seen anything like this before. Whatever you imagine total darkness to be, add some and this might be it. This is how it works: you book in advance – the place is very busy – one of the slots which, the night I went, were 6.45, 7.00 and 7.15. I thought this was strange, but made sense later. There are four set menus, meat, fish, vegetarian and the chef’s special and they change the ingredients all the time. You don’t get to know anything more about the food at this stage, you just order to a waitress before you enter the darkness. They’d tell us on the way out. My first thought was “well, if there is one place where they can get away with serving yesterday’s leftovers repackaged as the “chef’s special” without anyone noticing, this is it”. Then again, this is central London and the place has a good reputation so, I thought, “the chances of re-served leftovers is low”. Then the darkness factor kicked in. I thought, “…at least not higher than the other menus”. However, as they are very aware of the danger of someone having an allergic reaction in complete darkness, they do tell you about ingredients. I asked if there is fish in the special, the waitress said yes there is “some” in the starter, I thought “fish bones in the dark, hhmmmm” and went for the meat menu. I went there with a lady who was also interested and had never been before, she approached it in a similar way. Then they gave us keys to two lockers, to put our stuff in. Jackets, bags, rucksacks and especially phones and anything that could produce light stay out. So, we were taken to a relatively dark corridor, where Trevor, our blind waiter received us. Trevor was very polite and had a great radio voice. So did all the other waiters who were also blind. The chef isn’t. Yes, I did ask. Yes, Trevor. He said “no he is not blind, even though sometimes I wonder”. Trevor asked my date to stand behind me and put her right hand on my shoulder and I put mine on Trevor’s. He said, “when we are in, walk slowly and listen for directions”. After a few “take a left here, keep going straight, right here” etc, he then took my hand, put it on the back of a chair, took her round the table, did the same, we sat down. Complete darkness. He said “I’ll be back with your drinks” (we had ordered the “surprise cocktail”).
Trevor left us to go and bring in the other clients, hence the bookings at 6.45, 7.00, 7.15. All the clients come in at roughly the same time, the waiters get them to their seats in about half an hour while everybody is getting used to the circumstances and once everybody is seated, the food and drinks get to be circulated around the place. For the first quarter of an hour I kept …looking around. Habit is a strange thing. I kept turning my head around, eyes wide open, to get used to the idea that I could not see a thing. Nothing. And yet, I kept looking, and, according to consequent conversations with people around me, so does everybody else. After about 5 minutes, I focused more on hearing and tried to work out the shape and size of the restaurant and where exactly in it we were. I know we were in a corner and most of the restaurant was behind me, sound can tell you that much. I also know that from the entry point to where we were it was about 6-7 meters, which I knew because we walked it and I was now putting two and two together with the sounds I was processing. The place was not full but there was an equal number of speaking men and women and they all sounded kind of young-ish. It is very interesting the things you pick up when you can’t see. Trevor came back a bit later and brought a couple who sat next to us, very close, we were rubbing shoulders. The lady was seating next to me. She started talking to us, and we introduced ourselves. Then, after listening into our conversation for a few minutes, she proceeded to guess that I and my date were together for 3 years. As a matter of fact it was the third time we ever met. I found that funny, we didn’t say anything on the matter but we proceeded to play a guessing game with two people who we have never seen. We took turns guessing the other two people’s characteristics, age, occupation, education, height and so on. The only thing we disclosed was our nationalities which were Greek, German, Hungarian and Lithuanian. The two of us did considerably better at guessing the two other people’s “things”. The lady of the other couple said that I sound like I am in my early thirties and that I have a degree. This is also an exercise in diplomacy because it is a rather complicated matter to tell someone you have never met that they sound a bit too argumentative. FYI, the way to say this is “mmmm, you sound …about 25”. As it turned out, she was exactly 25 and amazed by my magical abilities. However, there was something quite interesting. All of us guessed the hair colour of the two unknown people exactly right. Let you who hath understanding reckon the number of this particular beast.
A little later, the food (and drinks) arrived. The drink is a rather simple matter. You put your lips together on the glass and drink. The food is another matter. Apart from the obvious issue of “what is it?” which was to be guessed, there was also the considerable matter of “where is it?” and “how much of it is there?” We knew there is a plate in front of us but where is the food in it? In the beginning I navigated the plate with the fork and knife and where I found resistance there was food. Did it need cutting? If I “forked” something how big was it going to be? Would it be peanut-sized or tennis-ball sized? Was it all one thing or two things together? Meat and potatoes? Vegetables and gravy? Is it dripping? Where? Is the whole plate one thing or many? How do I prepare my taste-buds? What colour is it? Is it blue? Would I eat it if I could see it? Trevor came to check everything is ok and gave us a hint. “You do remember nobody can see you, right? You can use your fingers”. Yeap. Then you remember. If you touch and hold something, you may not know whether it is pork, zebra, elephant or another human, but at least you get a rough idea how big it is and whether it is meat or sauce or cabbage. Your tongue and nose may tell a different story later but this is not the point. You can also put it in your palm to eat it and avoid any dripping. At that point I also realised that if I was to do that, afterwards I could wipe my hands on whatever the lady that was sitting next to me was wearing and say “oh, your shirt/jumper/dress feels nice” but I stopped because
she could be wearing a sleeveless top I am not that kind of man, thank you. A few minutes later Trevor came again. He asked if we had finished with the starter, and the two ladies said “they didn’t know”. Of course they didn’t. How could they have known unless they wiped the whole plate with their hands to make sure there is nothing left on it? So Trevor brought the mains. Same story, bigger plates, more food, which, by the way, was very good but there is something that changes when you don’t see what you are eating. I don’t want to go into any depth here but the Italians are onto something when they say “anche gli occhi vogliono la loro parte”. By that time I think I had stopped looking around in vain. I had already correctly guessed -but didn’t know that yet- even the hair length of the lady next to me (…no hands, ok?) and having overheard the conversations of several people near us, I didn’t want to be a part of any of them. By the end we were all trying to guess what our foods were and were looking forward to check how well we did with our guesses about the other couple. Cut a long story short, we got out and saw the other people, they were amazed by how far off they were in their guesses (I didn’t want to say “yeap, wait until you see what happens for the rest of your life…”), we were not so amazed but still “nice to meet them”, and then we talked to the waitress in the light, who told us what we had. We, the meat eaters, had carpaccio to start (correct guess), and some steamed vegetables, including cauliflower (wrong guess) carrot (correct) swede (wrong) and parsnip (wrong). For main we had pork (correct), duck (wrong), veal (I went for beef) in a sauce with ingredients that we got half right, and some other stuff. Needless to say, the two ladies got the ingredients of the dessert exactly right, to the last detail. The other couple who had the exotic “chef surprise” menu were told that among other things, they had zebra. “Oh”, I said. “Zebra! What was that like?” I asked the Hungarian guy. “Well” he said, “it was a bit like horse”.