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…