Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Dining in the Dark

At the weekend I got to tick off an experience that has been on my foodie 'to-do' list for some time – 'dining in the dark'. There are a few restaurants all around the world now that offer this unique experience, and I went to 'Dans le Noir' in London with a party of ten for a friend's birthday.

On arrival our orders were checked – everyone is served a fixed surprise menu but we had pre-ordered our choice of fish, meat, vegetarian or 'special' mixed menu – and we were instructed to leave all our belongings in secure lockers in the bar area – no phones or cameras allowed in the dining room! The ten of us were lined up with our hands on the shoulders of the person in front of us, led into the dining room, and 'shown' our seats one by one.

Our waiter was blind; in fact all the waiters were – a no-brainer when you consider the implications of training waiting staff to do everything in pitch dark, but it added an unexpected poignancy too. And it really was pitch dark, even after two hours at the table when some of us thought our eyes might have adjusted enough to see just a little!

It's obviously extremely disorientating sitting in an unfamiliar room in complete darkness with the hubbub (din!) of a dozen other dining tables filling your ears, and without visual cues it was not at all easy to communicate with anyone except those closest to me, but it didn't take too long to get sort of orientated; there was Eddie on my left, the end of the table on my right, my glass of wine, cutlery, glass of water. (Pouring glasses of water from the jug provided was a challenge!) And then the food arrived...

We all very quickly realised it was virtually impossible, without seeing, to approach a plate of mystery food with a knife and fork, and most of us ate with our fingers most of the time – a common choice, apparently. Again and again, conversation turned to the challenges blind people must face.

My expectations of eating in the dark had been split: on one hand, they say that when one of your senses is taken away you experience the others more acutely, but on the other they say you eat largely with your eyes...

I certainly experienced the textures of the food more acutely. As a child I was very squeamish about strange food textures, and without any visuals to anchor my idea of what I was eating I felt perhaps even more so. There was some sort of cold pastey stuff, firm on the plate but squidgy and melt-in-the-mouth, and salty to taste. Paté, it must be, but is paté always this slimy? What does it taste of? Is it really paté? What if it's something else? I found some toast on the plate, and manoeuvred the slice of paté-or-whatever-it-was onto it. Ah, that was better. There was some salady stuff on the side too. A few leaves of rocket and a cherry tomato... an onion, roasted just enough to mellow the flavour, but what a strange feeling when the layers all slipped apart between my teeth... a baby carrot... and something else I couldn't identify at all! It was round... firm... with the texture of a cooked radish perhaps, but the flavour...? I couldn't tell. And what was this left over in the corner of my plate? Oh. There I was eating chutney, on its own, with my fingers.

The main course followed, as main courses do, and in the spirit of a taster menu we were each served three different dishes – three small piles on each plate – and a little taster of each told me one was fish and two were meat. (This was the 'special' menu.) I tackled the fish first, and texture-wise it was a real struggle, with a few lumps of firm fishy stuff – I thought perhaps squid – in some kind of sauce or dressing, and then underneath a big squidgy lump of something I couldn't identify at all. I told myself it was a big piece of cooked tomato and it went down... The two meat dishes were much more enjoyable; on the right, tender chunks of stewed meat and veg, full of flavour. It tasted like beef, but richer... Venison perhaps. On the left, a meat I couldn't identify, on a pile of vegetable shreddings that I also couldn't identify. I thought at first the meat might be very well-flavoured chicken or pork, but no, the texture wasn't right for either (though it was very tender and soft) and it seemed rare in places. I enjoyed it though!

Dessert was easier to identify; something creamy in a ramekin – passionfruit pannacotta, I thought – and a side of mixed berries topped with a blob of chocolate moussey stuff. Thankfully it was much easier to use a spoon when the food was contained in a ramekin, with no chance of inadvertently pushing it off the plate!

Throughout the meal I was constantly shocked that I couldn't identify more flavours. I usually consider myself to have a pretty sensitive sense of taste, and I can often pick out subtle flavours that others can't. In the dark, the most prominent flavours by far were simply salt, sweet and umami, with a few notable aromatics (carrot, rocket, some of the fruits), and there seemed little complexity to any of the flavours at all. Was it just bad food? Are my tastebuds way less sensitive than I think? I think it was down to a sort of stress and overwhelm; the room felt extremely noisy (whether or not I was merely more aware of the noise), sensations of texture definitely overrode sensations of taste – arguably touch is the more important sense, I suppose – and the primary challenge was just getting the food eaten at all! Forced to eat clumsily, without being able to distinguish the different components on the plate (and many of the ingredients, it turned out, unfamiliar or less familiar) I was virtually unable to analyse what was in my mouth properly. I was interested (and relieved) to read in another blogger's account of dining in the dark (by Helen Barnard at Bomboloni) that this was her experience too; she wrote "This far out of my comfort zone, my sense of taste was not heightened, as expected, but rather went into a kind of emergency mode whereby only basic senses such as sweet, salty, bitter and savoury were registered, along with vague temperature differentials." A confusing and unsettling experience!

Back in the lit bar area we retrieved our bags and coats and were shown the menus, with photographs of what we'd just eaten. My starter – that slimy, salty paté – had been foie gras, and apparently there had been a fig on my plate. How had I missed a fig?? The fishy main was lobster and oyster – both a big surprise (I love lobster, but didn't think I'd ever find myself eating slippery, gooey oysters – ugh!) – the stewed chunks had indeed been venison, and the mystery meat was delicious bison! The shredded vegetable I hadn't recognised was celeriac – something I'm not very familiar with at all. The 'passionfruit pannacotta' had actually been mango and cardamom pannacotta (Cardamom? I hadn't detected that at all!) and the chocolate mousse had been white chocolate – I'd never have guessed!

I felt cheated! I'd eaten foie gras and not been able to savour it properly?! I never thought I'd find myself eating foie gras at all – I certainly wouldn't have chosen it (though I was relieved and encouraged to find, in this fascinating article, that foie gras production may not be nearly as bad as we think these days) – and I certainly hadn't thought it as wonderful as people say it is. I'd eaten lobster and not enjoyed it because I hadn't been able to identify the texture? Those who chose the meat menu, incidentally, had unknowingly sampled wagyu beef – supposedly some of the finest beef in the world! I realised I probably paid more attention to the bison than anything else, because both the texture and taste were very pleasing and because I couldn't recognise it and wanted to figure out what it was.

I think I can safely say that food is more enjoyable when you can see it!

For £52 I'd actually eaten surprisingly little food, though £13 is for 'access to the experience' and they do obviously use some premium ingredients in the dishes! I felt the experience could have been greatly improved by reducing the sound level in the dining room, with more space between tables and perhaps booths or something to deaden the noise.

But despite my reservations, it was a thoroughly fascinating, unique and powerful experience, and something I would recommend as I'm really glad I've done it. As I left the restaurant I said I wouldn't want to do it again, but after mulling it over I think it would probably be less stressful a second time and I might be able to relax and enjoy it more.

You'll have to pardon the pictureless post, for obvious reasons, but there are lots of pictures of past menus on Dans le Noir's website here if you'd like to take a look!

Now, this wouldn't be a complete or honest review if I didn't tell you that 30-40 hours after our meal in the dark (and just after I'd drafted the above), four out of the five of us who chose the 'special' menu developed food poisoning. I try not to judge a place - or anyone or anything - on a single incident, and accidents will always happen occasionally, but I can't quite get over the irony that this is the one dining experience in which we had to put complete trust in the chefs and staff to serve us food that was acceptable in every way, and food poisoning is pretty much the ultimate betrayal of that trust. A great shame, which has dampened my recommendation for the restaurant somewhat. But let the recommendation for the experience still stand. It will remain a memorable and fascinating one.

UPDATE: The restaurant refunded the cost of our meals. They said they'd had quite a few complaints that night and investigation showed it was a bad batch of oysters *shudder*. They have since decided never to serve oysters again!

1 comment:

Ferg said...

I don't think I'd fancy the experience at all! It would be very unsettling!

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