October 13, 2013

Going in Blind

             To say that Dans le Noir? is a unique culinary experience would be a gross understatement. My roommate and I first stumbled across the restaurant after watching the film About Time. The concept is a simple yet unusual one - dining in the dark. In the movie, characters played by Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams start conversing during a trip to the restaurant and only later come to properly “meet” when they exit, making their return to the outside world. My roommate, Heidi, and I figured that surely such a restaurant could not exist, but I assure you, the restaurant is alive and well right here in London.

             I must recommend now that it is better to book in advance, because spaces definitely fill up at this hot spot. Dans le Noir? was founded in 2004 in Paris by Edouard de Broglie with backing from the Paul Guinot Foundation for Blind People. The restaurant has branched out since then, infiltrating places such as Barcelona, Spain and St. Petersburg, Russia. It has also held temporary residence in New York City, New York, Warsaw, Poland, Bangkok, Thailand, and Moscow, Russia.

             Heidi and I decided to make a reservation and see for ourselves what all of the fuss was about. Upon our arrival, we were allowed to relax in the designated lounge areas either upstairs or downstairs and grab a drink. We were also told to surrender our belongings, specifically those with light sources (mobile phones, cameras), to lockers before we entered the actual eating space. We were approached by one of the staff members to choose from the White (chef’s surprise), Blue (fish and seafood), Green (vegetarian), and Red (meat) “surprise” menus.

             Then, we were given the options of either a two-course meal consisting of a main and dessert or a starter and dessert or a three-course meal consisting of a starter, main, and dessert. Heidi and I both decided we’d try the Red two-course meal. At that point, we were also instructed to relay any food allergies or specifications, because until we actually tasted the food, and maybe even then, we would have no idea what we would be eating. Promptly afterwards, we were introduced to Roberto, our waiter and blind guide. Heidi placed her hand on Roberto’s right shoulder while I placed mine on hers and all we could do was have a little “blind faith” in our astute leader.

             Roberto led us into pitch darkness as Heidi and I tottered precariously on our heels. I inched my way forward taking baby steps, vastly aware that we had entered the dining room. The clinking of glasses and cutlery and the boisterousness of other guests’ laughs boomed all around us as we were led to our table. Heidi and I were both very obviously disorientated and entered a state of delirious giggling and poking around the table, often times finding each other’s face at the end of our reaching hands. Roberto informed us that we had a napkin in front of us with a knife and a fork, along with two glasses, one for wine if we so desired, and the other for our drink of choice. As soon as Roberto’s helpful nudges and hand placements dissipated back into the abyss, Heidi and I were left to fend for ourselves.

             Our food and drinks arrived swiftly. Roberto told me that my Diet Coke had a straw in it, so I searched around for its familiar shape and thought that the ease of this action would be translated to eating my meal. I knew how to use cutlery and I certainly knew what cutlery felt like. I had cut many pieces of food in my lifetime, so I figured this really shouldn’t be that hard. I was wrong, oh so very wrong. I clanked my knife and fork around in a desperate and hungry attempt to locate the food on my plate, and was rendered apprehensive to take the first bite once I did.

             I half expected for my eyes to grow accustomed to the dark as the evening progressed, but even with that, I was wrong. The entire room was blacked out purposefully and whatever hopes I had of being able to see were abandoned in a fruitless effort. Let me just say that cutting a piece of meat in the dark is inordinately difficult. I exclaimed, “Chicken!” while Heidi simultaneously squealed, “Beef!” I came to the conclusion that she might have been right that it was beef, but we were both left puzzled about the mysterious vegetable. I had a mouth full of a leafy substance at one point, of that I was certain, but I had to glug down my drink after a bitter aftertaste of that previously mentioned unknown vegetable.

             It might be key to mention at this point that I am a very picky eater. If I don’t like the look or smell or texture of a certain food, I will certainly not put it anywhere near my mouth. Dans le Noir? forced me out of my comfort zone, and for that, I am extremely grateful. As soon as Heidi and I had composed ourselves from our delirium, we spoke just as friends normally do. No ambient music filled the space, so we were left to rely on our verbal skills.

             While you might assume the restaurant would be flooded with noise and bogged down by hearing the conversations of others, it wasn’t like that at all. Rather, the atmosphere was buzzing, but everyone honed in on their own table and their own conversation. No one cared to listen to the other guests, and with the distraction of mobile phones out of the equation, all anyone could do was give their undivided attention to the other person or persons at their table.

             Roberto’s voice came to Heidi and me through the cloak of incomprehensible black and he told us it was time for our main course. We were utterly confused since we had only ordered a two-course meal, so we explained, and Roberto said there must have been a mix-up. However, the reason I mention this is we were privileged to three courses for the price of two thanks to the kind staff. Now I have the ability to report on all three of the dishes, for the Red menu at least.

             Our main course was most elusive, but endlessly delicious. I sunk my teeth into tender and succulent meat laced with a sweet sauce that I assumed was cranberry. I dug into other meats around the plate, relishing each one’s flavor and their accompanying toppings and seasonings while Heidi lunged at me, bread in hand, from across the table. Heidi told me she had given up on her utensils and had begun using her hands. I stuck to the struggle of the knife and fork, determined to maintain my etiquette even under cover of darkness.

Oh look, there’s Heidi and me enjoying our meal…
             I relinquished this pleasantry by dessert when I plunged my hand onto my plate and found what was undoubtedly a strawberry. After biting into the juicy outside, I knew I had to be right. Surely my taste buds could not trick me when it came to my favorite fruit! Dessert was the meal where I felt invincible. My hand crept upon a small dish, so with spoon back in hand, creamy delight ensued and I tasted the familiar gravely crunch and smooth consistency of what I have come to know as crème brûlée. Heidi and I agreed in unison, excited that we had finally come to a confident conclusion.

             All I had in the restaurant were my sensations and my perceptions. As proclaimed by the website itself, in the dark, everyone is equalized. It does not matter what anyone looks like, or even who anyone is. All that matters in that moment is being present. My generation is hooked on electronic devices. Glued to phones, laptops, and social media, it’s no wonder that we report feelings of loneliness as a result. Ironically, Dans le Noir? forces us to truly see the person who has accompanied us for the evening.

             Conversational gesticulations and movements such as head nods were impossible, so Heidi and I had to communicate to one another that we were listening by other means, such as asking questions and saying things like, “Yes, I understand,” or, “Go on.” With our sight stripped, we couldn’t even be tempted by external stimuli, whether it be in the form of people or scenery. For these reasons, the restaurant is an ideal date location in my opinion and probably one of the most romantic as well. What more could anyone want than to be with good company and even better food in such an intimate setting, explicitly attuned to their partner?

             Dans le Noir? also offers awareness about the condition of being blind. As soon as Heidi and I stepped outside of our black box, I couldn’t be more indebted to my sight, something I normally just take as a given. It was amazing how my body compensated in the areas of hearing, smelling, and tasting, and the whole experience was truly unforgettable. While gathering our possessions from our locker and blinking through blurred vision, we were asked slyly by the restaurant’s endearing manager, Dominique Raclin, if we would like to know what we consumed during our meal.

             Raclin talked us through each course and I might have been right on some of my guesswork, but at other times, I was so far off! I was highly impressed however, because what I had eaten was not merely food, but gourmet cuisine of the finest quality, and it doesn’t take seeing a certain dish to recognize that. When Heidi and I emerged into the lit lounge, that’s when we paid. The restaurant could be categorized in the pricier range, but it’s a night out well worth the splurge. Raclin even told us that there have indeed been incidents of “dating in the dark,” just as was idealized in About Time.

             As far as whether you think I’m going to clue you in on the specifics of what I had to eat, you would be highly mistaken. All I will say is that the sauce definitely wasn’t cranberry and I realized my aversion to artichokes. As for the rest, that’s something you’ll just have to go and find out for yourself. 

             To reserve a table at the London-based Dans le Noir? restaurant and determine whether you would like to join the dark side, have a look here.

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