‘Make it short & snappy’
D for Dining in the Dark
Eating is the ulimate multisensory experience, so what happens when you remove one of your senses – that of sight? How does not seeing the cutlery, crockery, decor, waiters, other guests or indeed the food and drink itself affect the eating experience? Here’s my review of dining at ‘Dans Le Noir?’ restaurant.
‘Just the facts please’
- http://www.danslenoir.com/ @DansLeNoirLDN
- Address: 30-31 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0DU
- Telephone: 020 7253 1100
- Opening hours: open every day of the week, closed Friday evenings
- 4 menu choices: Chef’s Surprise, Fish & Seafood Lovers, For Vegetarians & For Meat Eaters
- Cost: 2 courses £44, 3 courses £52 per person and other packages are available, special events may differ.
- Interestingly they also now offer a chance to eat their food in the lit bar area for £13 less, good for if you enjoy the food itself and don’t care so much about the dark ambience.
‘I’ve got a cup of tea, tell me all about it…’
Having a background in sensory science, I adore and actively seek out multi-sensory experiences as you will see through this blog. One of the ones that often gets brought up in conversation is “have you been to that restaurant, you know the one where you eat in the dark?” Well, given that I used to pass it on my daily commute and live very close by how could I not have gone to experience it for myself?
Dans Le Noir? has several restaurants in several the trendy hotspots around the world: Barcelona, Paris, St Petersburg, London… I’m just fortunate the London one is a hop skip and jump away.
It’s popularity has led to its expansion in repertoire from just food to dating events, cookery lessons and live music and it looks like they’ve branched out into a spa where you can receive massages by blind people in the dark (I don’t think this option is available in Clerkenwell yet though)! I opted for the more safe live music option as I didn’t know what to expect the background sound to be otherwise. A wise choice I think as on the night, the music really did help!
So, for those of you who haven’t browsed their website or heard of them, this is my 10 step process of how it works:
- You choose a mystery menu with the choice of either vegetarian, fish, meat or surprise.
- You put all your items away in secure lockers especially including anything which has a source of light (phones, watches, cameras etc).
- You are assigned a blind waiter who explains the format, asks you allow them to guide you and leads you through the first thick black curtain.
- You enter another portal which ensures all remaining light is removed.
- You are now in pitch black… and I mean pitch black… you can’t see your hand in front of your face!
- You are guided to your seat and told if you need anything e.g. to be taken to the toilet or more drink to call your waiter’s name. And yes to answer your question, the toilet has lights, it’s just back through the same layered system, so no worries there!
- You are served your meal.
- You have the challenge of how to eat your meal with no sight and only the other senses including hearing and smell and your perception of space. You also have the challenge of dealing with the pitch blackness surrounding and pressing in on you!*
- You finish up and are guided out.
- Once outside you are reunited with your possessions which you can clutch lovingly having been separately from technology for a whole meal! You are then interestingly shown photos of what your dishes looked like and told what you ate! Then you tend to leave with an animated discussion of your findings, what was a surprise and what was not.
I approached it with caution and was prepared to treat it as a sensory experiment rather than holding out much hope for the quality of the food, although for that price I was hoping it would be rather swish!
So here are my topmost thoughts on the evening:
On arrival: It was a little disconcerting disconnecting with society by leaving all your must-haves in a little gym style locker in the front room. A little like you felt you should have told your friends and family in case you went through the curtain and never returned like some awful b-rated horror film!
Blind guides: My guide was charming and although it did feel a little awkward clutching onto a blind waiter it definitely mean Dans Le Noir achieves one of its goals (I’m assuming it is one) about making you consider and count your blessings more blatantly. Here we were paying to have the novel experience of losing our sight completely for an hour or two for ‘entertainment’, and these waiters had no choice. There was a little to it of something like the Paralympics in 2012, where you felt the tables had been reversed. We entered their world where they are empowered, showing us their way of life; for once behind that curtain they were king, we were dependent on them for everything: helpless and vulnerable. Using blind waiters I’m sure is practical for Dans Le Noir? and it certainly helps the focus on the issue of sight and the importance we give it.
Sense of sight: If you’ll indulge me please, here’s a quick interlude about the importance of sight in food. Out of all our senses sight is certainly one of the dominant senses when it comes to whether we accept or reject food. The phrase “you eat with your eyes” is not bandied around for nothing. There was an experiment done in the 70s that Eric Schlosser refers to in his book Fast Food Nation where testers ate a plate of food under special lighting that made it appear normal. They were tucking into their steak with relish and munched forkful after forkful of chips (fries) claiming how yummy it all was. Then the lights were altered back to natural colour and it was revealed the steak was coloured blue and the chips were green – luminous “unnatural” colours. Many diners were put off, their evolutionary complex so strong a few left to be ill…. powerful stuff! There are numerous other experiments showing the importance of colour and our perception of it. I’ll come back to the senses and colour in future posts.
Dining table: I was a little taken aback by how tightly packed together we all were, a little sardine-esque. I couldn’t tell the size of the room or anything else, all I knew was I had both my neighbours with their arms in touching proximity to mine and we appeared to be on a long table.
*The Dark: This was by far the most interesting aspect for me as it was so unexpected: my reaction to pitch darkness. I’m sure, as many of you have been, as a child I had a nightlight and didn’t particularly delight in the idea of the dark, however as a grown up I feel I’m pretty used to it now and can sleep with the door shut. Although having said that, living in London it’s never really dark ever! A weekend in the countryside is a bit of a wake up call, it’s just so dark!
Anyway, back to the dark of the restaurant. What surprised me wasn’t that I was scared, because I wasn’t, it was that I had an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, again something I’ve never really suffered from in the past. The feeling of being in a box, a coffin, a small cupboard… anything small and enclosed, was strong. The other thing that was surprising was that when my eyes were open they were actively seeking any specks of light from anywhere, so much so, that they actually started to ache! I debated the eyes open/eyes closed question and ended up eyes closed or as slits to avoid them stinging. Certainly not something I was expecting!
Back to the claustrophobia, it was clearly too much for some people. The dining partner of the lady to my right only lasted about 20 minutes before she had to make her excuses and leave! Just a warning to you if you are of a disposition to find it unsettling to the point of missing out. I don’t know if they do refunds based on not being able to hack it!
The music: To be honest I don’t remember a huge amount, but I did appreciate it being there, as I said at the start, it helped to break up the atmosphere and ease us in. Speaking of atmosphere, it was fine actually. Everyone seemed to be talking in loud animated voices to combat the lack of sight and body language cues, I guess hoping the increased volume could help their communication. In fact what with my eyes straining and the volume it all felt quite raw and magnified, a little too intense perhaps.
The food: At last I hear you cry! I feel I’ve already given away quite a lot in this post already and don’t want to ruin it for those of you wanting to go. Having said that they do change their menus regularly and have posted ideas of previous menus so I can give a little away. Basically, I went predictably for the Chef’s surprise menu. I was pleased to say that previous rumours of “texture-less slop” were unfounded. I felt around on the plates for the food which felt well presented and carefully laid out. When I say “felt around”, I started with cutlery and ended up abandoning it for the wild pleasure of scooping with my fingers, on the whole.
The flavours delivered, I can’t say if the lack of vision heightened the flavour, as I didn’t experience the same dish in the light, but it was flavoursome. Being the chef’s special they stick some surprise exotic ingredients in that you might not be used to in your usual weekly meal so that could cause a little confusion over what that item was. Crocodile was one of these for me. From what I know of crocodile meat, it picks up the flavour of its own dinner, so if it eats chicken it tastes more chicken like, if it eats a lot of fish it’ll be more fishy. Quite nice either way.
Who you go with: I would say think long and hard before going on a first date here, or with family or colleagues. This is primarily if you aim on sharing your food. I mean, it would be fine if you’re like some people and don’t like sharing; if you are of the opinion that you ordered what you ordered because you wanted that and nothing else. I am not one of these and don’t understand you lot. I love food and therefore want to try as much of it as possible. This leads to me teaching my boyfriend about food sharing (he used to be one of you non-sharers and is on a learning journey to remember to offer and share). Sharing food in the pitch black is an experience in itself. It requires a lot of flailing around in the air, hoping with all your might you don’t poke someone in the eye with your fork, and that if the food has anything sloppy or sauce-like that you don’t come out of there looking like you’ve been to a food fight! On the other hand, if you do go with a loved one it is quite an intimate process feeling around and guiding the food to their mouth and sharing the Dans Le Noir? experience.
**I’m not counting on there being someone watching CCTV in a little office rolling his eyes in despair at yet another seemingly courteous and well manner young lady taking great delight in shoving fine china in her face when she thinks no one is watching!