Waiter, there might be a fly in my soup…

img_1825#ChallengeCompleted: Dans Le Noir?

When? Tuesday 31st January

Nominated by: Lucy

Close friends know I’m a bit of a foodie and love discovering new restaurants. But Dans Le Noir?, in Clerkenwell, is a restaurant with a big difference: diners eat in absolute darkness, served by visually impaired staff. It’s described as ‘a sensory experience that awakes your senses and enables you to completely re-evaluate your perception of taste and smell’.

I’m a firm believer that you eat primarily with your eyes so I was sceptical how my enjoyment of a meal might be elevated rather than compromised by lack of vision. I also confess I was cautious I might unwittingly eat something I’d rather not! I was, of course, willing to accept Lucy’s Challenge.

Lucy and I were greeted in a dimly lit reception containing a bar, sofas and lockers into which we were directed to stow our belongings, including phones. We were given ‘menus’ ­– not a choice of what dishes we might care to enjoy, simply an outline of the courses and drinks available ­– and asked if we wanted the ‘chef’s choice’, ‘fish’, ‘meat’ or ‘vegetarian’ option, while a note was made of any food intolerances and dislikes we had.

It was with some trepidation we then met our (blind) waiter, Guy. I was directed to place my hand on his shoulder, with Lucy behind me placing her hand on my shoulder; thus train-like we were led into the pitch black dining area (and it really was pitch black) and to our table, where Guy ensured we were sat safely before explaining clearly what was in front of us.

It was immediately obvious Lucy and I, seated opposite each other, were sharing our table with another couple and, while we couldn’t see them, it was clear they were extremely close, which was disconcerting. It was impossible to tell what other diners sat where, but there was a fair bit of noise and chatter. I commented to Lucy that if she and I both drew where we thought we were sat in context of the rest of the restaurant and other diners, we’d no doubt have very different results.

Guy soon returned with our drinks (‘the glass has two straws in it; be careful’), a lidded jug of water (‘place your finger in your glass as you pour, so you can feel the level’) and some bread to share. Aware of other diners being so close on one side and not knowing who else might be sat nearby, I found it tough figuring out what space we actually had and hoped I wouldn’t push things off the table or knock anything over; although to be fair it seemed pretty well sorted in terms of mitigating spill hazards.

Eating the bread was simple enough and as no mention was made of butter, we guessed that was one problem we didn’t have to overcome. Lucy was confused as I described the herbiness of the roll I was tasting; she really couldn’t pick that flavour out. It was a while before we realised the plate offered a selection of rolls…

My starter arrived (cue a cautious juggling act as I blindly endeavoured to make room for my plate by moving unseen glasses/cutlery/jugs/bread). Now came the tricky bit: eating. I stabbed my fork randomly down in front of me, feeling for the edge of the plate with my other hand. More often my fork came back all but empty; sometimes I was lucky and speared a particularly large mouthful of food. There seemed little point trying to use a knife to cut something I couldn’t see. Besides, with no one watching, who cared about my table manners?

Most flavours I recognised. But naming the ingredients of my dish with confidence? Actually pretty damn tricky with no visual cues.

I quickly got fed up with blindly stabbing my fork and introduced my other hand to tentatively push things on to it instead. Hey, it’s not like anyone is watching! It was still pretty hit and miss, mind – not to mention in danger of getting rather messy.

My main course was equally challenging. The plate this time felt like a clover shape and in each of the ‘petals’ I encountered something different. In my mouth I could differentiate between meat, fish and vegetable elements (I’d like to think I could at least manage that!). Some I liked. Some I wasn’t so sure about. Most I just shovelled in regardless, as though it was some kind of challenge just to find and eat everything I’d been served.

I didn’t order pudding, but Lucy had favoured that course over a starter. Guy brought her dish and offered us a spoon each. If eating your own meal blind is hard, sharing is virtually impossible and here I can only apologise to Lucy. Because I really hadn’t intended to pick up was seemed to be at least half the portion in one go when I slid my spoon in. Apparently balanced very firmly, I had a good four mouthfuls of pudding from just one super-giant spoonful. Sorry. I didn’t feel I could put it back. Then again, who would have known? (Lucy, it’s OK: I didn’t put it back!)

So did I have any idea what I was eating? While I was confident about a handful of ingredients, on the whole not really. And for me that was the disappointment. I mean, I get the theory about blindness heightening your other senses. And it’s great that the chefs aim to combine flavours and textures for the optimum taste sensation. But when I can’t successfully mix those flavours and textures on my fork because I can’t see what I’m blooming well doing, it all gets muddled and ultimately lost. Once I’d found an area of my plate with food on, I ate that. Then I used my hands to locate to the next area of food.

I pretty much gave up with cutlery; fingers were far more efficient. And it was a surprise when, thinking I’d about finished my main course, I discovered a whole new ‘petal’ on my plate full of a whole new set of flavours and textures. And there was another problem for me: without knowing how much food was in front of me, I struggled to pace my meal.

I found I naturally closed my eyes a lot (seemed pointless having them open, I guess), which started to feel a little like I was living in a dream. But were my other senses heightened? Impossible to tell if my hearing was heightened because the restaurant was noisy – few soft furnishings, it sounded like, as voices bounced around. Perhaps when you can’t see other people, you’re simply not so conscious of keeping your voice down. I guess it’s not the place to reveal secrets; who knows who could be sitting right next to you, listening?!

I wouldn’t say my sense of smell was more acute, either. Actually, thinking back, I don’t recall really smelling my food at all. I’m not sure if that says more about me or the meal…

As for taste: to be honest, I just found the blackness frustrated my enjoyment of my food rather than enhancing it. I tried really hard to savour the flavours, but ultimately I get pleasure from seeing my meal on the plate. I like picking up a bit of this and a bit of that, in proportions of my choosing, and tasting them together to see how they blend. Being blinded took that opportunity away from me. While the chef might have carefully balanced flavours and textures through the meal, his skill was negated by the fact each mouthful consisted only of what I found by chance. And I was frustrated to recognise flavours yet not recall their names. I guess I know what I like and I like what I know.

In the bar afterwards we were given a photograph of what we’d been served, with a full description. Some of ‘the big reveal’ was expected. Much of it was a complete surprise. Those little globules I’d hoovered up that I’d thought might be bits of fish turned out to be button mushrooms (which ordinarily I’d have pushed to one side). The meaty fish wasn’t shark, as I’d guessed, although I wasn’t far wrong. The giant chip was a giant chip. That sauce turned out to have been truffled egg yolk. The chocolate ganache had been unmistakable; sadly the game it’d smothered had been impossible to taste through it, which was a shame as I’d have been interested to savour the deer. What the heck is a daikon? Although apparently I ate one, I still have no idea…

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Spooky goings on…

 

#ChallengeCompleted: The Ghost Bus Tour

When? Wednesday 25th January

Nominated by: Portland

 

#ChallengeKate is officially off the ground – my first Challenge has successfully been completed!

My colleague Portland challenged me to hold her hand on The Ghost Bus Tour, an alternative London sightseeing trip billed as ‘taking you around the darker side… providing a spooky theatrical experience you’ll never forget’.

A chilly, dark January evening seemed the perfect time to board the bus: a classic 1960s Routmaster, once part of a 19th century fleet of private funeral buses. While looking like a regular double-decker (albeit with ‘spooky’ paint job), the upstairs deck – where we chose to sit – boasts red velvet curtains at each window and facing pairs of seats, between which is a small table bearing an old-fashioned lamp. It all created a wonderfully eerie atmosphere.

We were welcomed on board by the conductor, a young lady who produced a spectre-acular (see what I did there?) performance of someone obsessed with gruesome deaths, grizzly ghosts and all things spooky and supernatural quickly – a talent proved to be equalled by her knowledge and recall of historical facts and figures.

While we waited for other passengers to board, the driver – dressed in a skeleton onesie and disguised by a blinging skull mask – snuck up on people and made them jump. I was facing the stairs so had a clear view each time he made his way silently up the aisle. Portland, however, sat facing me, was an easy target for scaring. Three times the driver and conductor between them had succeeded in making her leap !

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The Conductor kept up a thoroughly engaging commentary throughout the 80-minute or so ‘frightseeing’ tour, pointing out places of interest and recounting their tales of hangings, torture, murders, hauntings and all manner of other strange goings on.

There was a smattering of smutty innuendo (describing Nelson’s column as ‘a large erection with a little seaman on top did, I confess, make me titter), but the tales were always based in fact – such as the true story of the ghost of Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane (Google it). We discovered places of executions, murders, hauntings and more. Who knew, for example, that the statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square has a light electric charge running through it to keep the pigeons off? Or that his cigar was removed to stop the pigeons using it as a perch and pooing on his face…?

The commentary was punctuated throughout the tour by a vignette acted out brilliantly between the conductor and another ‘cast’ member, running up and down the stairs and aisles and sharing dialogue with the Conductor. The scenario split our attention brilliantly between points of interest outside and the story taking place on board the bus. I won’t spoil your fun by revealing details.

OK, I admit I wasn’t scared. But I was amused. Very amused. And entertained. And I’ve learnt a few more new facts about London, which is always a wonderful thing.

Thank you, Portland, for a great first Challenge!

 

More #ChallengeKate proposals have come in – click over to my page listing The Challenges to see what I’ll be up to next. And don’t forget to send my your own #ChallengeKate!

 

 

First Challenges: in the diary!

We’re not even a fortnight into the New Year and it looks like I might complete my first Challenge this weekend! I also have two further Challenges arranged… and that’s not even counting the fact I’ve started my blog (you’re reading it – hurrah!), as Huw and Cathy suggested I do. (Blogging about #ChallengeKate wasn’t technically a #ChallengeKate, but hey, it kinda counts, right, Huw & Cathy?)

It’s so exciting. New #ChallengeKate proposals keep coming in, too – some simple but fun, others that will involve a little more planning. I aim to add a page to this blog soon to record who’s Challenged me to do what, with dates they’re planned for and completed. Keep them coming! The aim is for this to run throughout 2017.

And, of course, I shall share with you how I get on at each one.

So, what’s coming up?

Well, first up this weekend. Stacey originally Challenged me to do the Harry Potter London Walk. We agreed that would be better-suited to a springtime date, so in the meantime she suggested we visit the House of MinaLima – a shop-come-gallery in Soho that has an exhibition of graphic artworks from Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. When the first Harry Potter book was released I read it really just to see what all the fuss was about. I enjoyed it but concluded it was ‘just’ a children’s book, and wasn’t gripped enough to follow the rest of the series. My first visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando in 2012 piqued my interest more – not least because of Stacey’s incredible enthusiasm for the amazing sets in the theme park. I vowed to read the books once we were home. I didn’t. But a return visit to Florida the following year renewed my interest and this time I did read all seven books, back to back. And quickly they did grip me. I confess I’m now a Harry Potter fan. House of MinaLima will, I’m sure, be fascinating.

The other two #ChallengeKate events accepted are very different but equally enticing. First of all, Lucy Challenged me to dine with her at ‘Dans Le Noir?’, a restaurant in Clerkenwell that is in the pitch black and waited on by blind waiters. The restaurant has been on my radar for some time, as I’m intrigued to see how my tastebuds react when the visual stimulation I get from a delicious meal is removed. They say your tastes are significantly heightened. I’ll let you know… We’re booked in for 31st January. Hurrah!

Secondly, Jon has Challenged me to compete with him on the F1 Simulator in Horley. I mentioned in my last post that Jon is a fellow petrol-head and also a competent karter – so I’m not so sure I’ll beat him. I’m looking forward to giving it a damn good go, though! I don’t know which circuit I’ll get to drive (they offer all the current F1 tracks), but it’d be good to try to find out before, so I can do some homework and learn the corners. We’ll get a decent amount of practice then it’s into a 15-minute or 30-minute race – complete with podium ceremony at the end (no mention of Champagne, though, I note…). I’m not sure how realistic the experience will be (I’m pretty sure I won’t be subjected to quite the G-forces Lewis Hamilton et al endure), but hey, it sounds like just my cup of coffee. Can’t wait. It’s booked for 11th February. Vroom!

Right. Better get on with adding that page on here to list all my nominated #ChallengeKate ideas. There are already almost too many to remember. Keep them coming!

And so it all begins…

My friends know me for having a streak or two of adrenaline junkie/petrolhead/travel addict running through me. Some, I believe, even live somewhat vicariously through my increasingly frequent #kidfree adventures. So with 2017 being a Big Year for me (hard to believe, I know, but yes – I’ll turn 50 in September!), I have already pencilled in a couple of more extreme activities and big trips. Thinking about those soon inspired me to go even further…

And so it was I came up with #ChallengeKate, launching it with this Facebook post on
1 January 2017:

It’s the Big Five-O for me later this year so I’m calling on all my friends to help make my year super-special. At any point in 2017 please ‘challenge’ me to do something. It doesn’t have to be big/costly/difficult, just something we can do together that’s fun, unusual/different and most of all memorable (oh, and realistic!). After all, it’s the memories that count and those made with my friends are the best gifts I could hope for. Post your challenge on my wall. Excited to see what you come up with! #ChallengeKate.

It took a while to craft the post. While my ‘coming of age’ is no secret, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to plaster the figure all over my Facebook page. But a post that made a Big Deal about ensuring 2017 was filled with super-memorable never-tried-it-before activities intermingled with spending quality time with as many friends as possible was starting to create overtones that I had some hideous terminal disease… Hence in went the age thing.

All about me

Initially #ChallengeKate was about me having all the fun and I considered asking friends to nominate exciting/daring/out-of-my-comfort-zone challenges for me to undertake. Then I realised there’s a whole world of really scary things certain people might come up with so I quickly tweaked the idea to suggest the nominee would partake in their challenge with me. That way, none of my friends (I hope!) will suggest anything ridiculously whacky or dangerous and I get to spend even more time with friends doing new and exciting things. Win, win.

I put the post live just as I went to bed so when I woke up on 2 January I eagerly logged on to see what response it had received. Wow! It was incredibly motivating to see so many of my friends had already liked my post and commented with ideas and challenges!

So, already accepted are:

  • Go to a Metallica concert with Andy (AKA Mosh): He knows I dislike heavy metal probably as strongly as he adores it. But hey, I guess it could be fun. I’m not convinced it’ll convert my musical tastes, but I’ll give the gig a go. Whenever that might be, as no tour has been announced yet…
  • Have a curry with Wendy (my sister): She knows I don’t like curry. Truth is, I’ve convinced myself of that fact without really giving Indian food a fair go. So, in the spirit of stepping out of my comfort zone and trying something new, I’ll accept the challenge. Wendy did try to turn the challenge into something more akin to #TortureKate, suggesting she order me the hottest curry going, but I think I’ve persuaded her that’s not actually the point…
  • Walk the Line with Cathy (fellow dance pal). The Line is ‘London’s first dedicated modern and contemporary art walk’, running from the Olympic Park in Stratford to The O2, roughly following the line of the Meridian. It’s three miles as the crow flies, but meanders along waterways so a little longer. It’s a perfect Challenge because it’s something I’d had in mind I’d really like to do, anyway. Thanks, Cathy. You can find out more about the trail at the-line.org.
  • Marvel at the Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them artworks at the MinaLina Gallery with Stacey (my Floriday Theme Park Pal and the person responsible for getting me into the whole wizarding world of Harry Potter). It’s a two-part challenge, because we’ve always said we’ll do the Harry Potter Walk in London; however, as that will probably be more enjoyable in the spring, we’re adding in a visit to MinaLina before it closes in early February. Find out more at minilina.com.
  • Compete in a race in a Formula One simulator with Jon (a fellow petrol-head and ex-Spice pal). Brilliant idea! And it’s already in the diary for February. Really looking forward to that… although considering all the karting experience Jon has, I’m sure he’ll comprehensively beat me! Try it yourself at http://www.letsrace.co.uk.
  • Eat in the dark with Lucy (old school pal). Another potential double-header, as Lucy suggested meals at Clerkenwell’s Dans Le Noir – a restaurant set in pitch black – along with afternoon tea at Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium in Shoreditch. Hopefully the ‘blackout’ meal will be accomplished soon. You can book at com/en/home/ and ladydinahs.com.

No dates have been confirmed for these Challenges yet, but they’ll get nailed down fairly easily, I’m sure.

Meanwhile, there are a few others hopefully in the pipeline…

  • Go white-water rafting with Sherine (one of my lovely neighbours). This one is no doubt inspired by the fact we live practically next door to the British Olympic white-water rafting centre. Ideally, we’d like to get a small team of people together for that one. May has already said she could be persuaded if it’s somewhere warm. Well, Broxbourne can be warm in the summer…
  • Slide down the world’s fastest zip line, with June (another dancing lady). It’s in Wales and has been on my radar since it opened a few years back. Really hope we succeed in sorting out a weekend away to get that one ticked off!
  • Bodyboard with Fiona (old [not in the age sense] but never forgotten colleague). Again, this will need to wait till the weather is a bit more conducive to venturing into British waters as unfortunately a trip abroad isn’t practical within my already-pretty-much-allocated annual leave.

I really hope these all pan out – and I’m relying on you Nominees to firm up plans!

Oh, lastly – or perhaps it should have been firstly, there’s one Challenge I have already accepted: to blog about my Challenges (Thanks Huw, a former boyf and schoolpal, with additional suggestions from dance pal Cathy ). So here it is: blog started!

I hope you enjoy following my exploits and I look forward to hearing how you will #ChallengeKate, either via this blog, on my Facebook wall or on email.

Please pop back for updates!