Surreal gourmet dining – in total darkness. Dans Le Noir.

About Time is one of my husband’s favourite movies.  It’s a time-travelling rom-com where the couple meet for the first time in the pitch-black of a restaurant where customers dine in complete darkness.

I never for a moment realised that this restaurant was virtually just around the corner from the Barbican – well a 10 minute walk away –  so we went along to Dans Le Noir in Clerkenwell Green to test-drive the experience.  The restaurant/experience celebrates its tenth anniversary this year.

exterior

A short walk away via St John’s Square, the venue looks just like a bistro bar if you’re peering in from outside.  A comfy sofa and a few small tables creates a very intimate welcome and we were greeted warmly as soon as we were through the door.

The staff are keen to explain how the evening will develop and then I noticed the lockers on one wall, where it is recommended you leave your shiny things with lit screens.  Anything which might ruin the total blackout should stay securely locked up before you go in.

There is a short, but varied, wine list and there is a small selection of cocktails on the menu.  The bar looks fully stocked so I’m sure the bartender would be willing and flexible with requests.

The neat choice of 4 surprise menus are themed by palate and adapted in various ways, according to the seasons.  The menus change every few months and sometimes there are special menus for specific calendar events such as St Patrick’s Day and Valentine’s Day and, of course, Christmas.  Dans le Noir also promotes the cuisine of certain countries through Travel days, but across all the menus, the chefs work mainly with fresh products and, when possible, organic and seasonal vegetables.

Liberating ourselves from watches, phones and other clutter, we began to relax as we chose our colours for the evening.

White – Chef’s surprise; Red – For meat eaters; Green – For vegetarians; Blue – For seafood and fish lovers

You choose your colour and that’s all you know about what will be on the plates.

I went for White and my partner chose Blue.

A group being led into the main restaurant

A group being led into the main restaurant

After we had cocktailed, and feeling very mellow, we were subtly grouped with another couple into a softly lit corridor towards the back left of the bar.  It was here that our host introduced us to Jacques, who is blind and who was our waiter for the night.  He introduced himself and led us slowly to the restaurant in a gentle, shuffling, hand on shoulder conga chain.  My head was filled with strange ‘what if’ worries; how many times in my life am I going to have this blind snaking experience (unless I’m unfortunate enough to be hi-jacked) and what happens if I lose the shoulder in front of me or shuffle too fast and lose my partner behind me?  The surreality of the evening was only just beginning, but one feels safe and secure in this dance.

Jacques guided us gently and verbally through another corridor as the things become darker and darker.  He must have this guiding narrative with guests at least twice a day but there is no tired boredom in his tone; I feel he knows that each little step we take shuffling along are in parallel with huge strides we are taking in mindset.  I wonder what goes through his head as he welcomes us to the same world he lives in all the time.

We arrived in the pitch darkness – not the slightest glimmer of light – in what must be the restaurant because we could hear the other diners and the clicks of cutlery on plates.  Jacques guided us masterfully to our table and chairs and settled us down, explaining the layout of the table, wine and cutlery to make us feel at home in our zone.

The feeling I had was that of an intimate cellar bistro, and yet the restaurant seats 60 so I think this is a trick of the mind.  I certainly didn’t feel overwhelmed by voices, and even though I could overhear snatches of conversation, it seemed too much effort to bother listening; my senses were busy and narrowing their focus.

Dining in the dark releases you from all the normal worries of appearance, spills or slip-ups; these concerns literally disappear.  Any distraction from what other diners are doing, wearing or eating is equally gone.  I slowly felt my way around the table to get to grips with the surface.  There is no tablecloth and the surface felt very slightly sticky… perhaps an earlier spill.  Wisely, the tables are not decorated with anything more than is purely functional.  We were on a 4 seater table (or larger) so I knew that our conga was placed together.  Analysing the situation afterwards, it is much easier to strike up a conversation because we’re all in the same situation and we feel uninhibited.  There is fun in comparing and discussing dishes and tastes.

Before long, and because the experience is so surreal, we were chatting to the young American girls next to us and we all start to compare dishes.  I don’t think that I’ve ever tried to focus quite so much on my tastebuds.  The experience becomes much more about relishing and identifying the flavours in your dishes.  You know broadly what your choice of menu was, but that’s as far as it goes.

My partner forked fastidiously, but I felt emancipated and resorted to using my fingers to feel and to eat.  My excuse is that I didn’t want to miss anything, but in reality, in complete darkness, it’s simply the most efficient way.

As each course is done, Jacques arrived and talked us through the process of dish removal and what was up next.  There was much more intimacy with Jacques than we would have had with a waiter in a normal restaurant.  We were relying on him and trusting him for everything there.  If one needed to pop out, we were under instructions to call his name and he would come to guide us.  We could hear him gently calling something like “coming through” to the other waiters as he made his way through the restaurant; this background messaging is all the waiters need to stay synchronised and avoid any clashes.

All the courses were delicious, and the main course was a trio of dishes on a tripartite plate, which suits the occasion.  The wine was chosen by the restaurant to accompany each course; we don’t know what we are eating ahead of time, so the restaurant chooses for us.  Personally, I liked this.  Not only was I handing myself over to Jacques for the menu content, but also for the wine … it seemed to make the whole experience very relaxed, in that regard.

After dessert and some final comparisons, we were guided out of the restaurant area gently coming back into the light of the bar area.  I wonder if the host turns down the lighting in the bar area before we come out because our eyes must be much more sensitive after the meal.  Tea and coffee were served while we were presented with our menus with example photos of our dishes.

Relaxing after the in-the-dark eating experience over a coffee in the lounge area

Relaxing after the in=the dark eating experience over a coffee in the lounge area

I feel ashamed to say that, on the “reveal” after the meal, I had recognised only a few items but I put this down to my inexperienced palate.  My partner recognised much more.  Regarding my poor guesses, I’m also going to use the excuse that the dishes were much more sophisticated than I had expected and some of the meat was not necessarily what one might expect.

After mentally scolding myself, I immediately wanted to go back in and have another taste.

The experience is like eating 2 meals…. Once with your taste buds and then you take it in all over again when you can see what you ate.  A milder version of this happened on the starter and dessert, and I felt as if I were eating and appreciating the meal twice in the same evening.

I am not going to spoil the menu by revealing its content because this review will be online before the menu next changes, but the website has some previous menus and starters including:

Blue starter:  Stuffed smoked Salmon rolls; Mixed leaves and cherry Tomatoes; Olive Tapenade on toast

Blue main: Couscous salad, poached Salmon, veveal marinated aubergine; Savoy cabbage, chestnuts & crispy Parma-ham salad

Red main: Crispy pork belly on roasted shallots with Tarragon juice; Duck breast with pale Aubergine Capanata ; Lamb with green bean sauce

Green main: Olive oil and parmesan bruscheta; courgettes “dauphinoises” with watercress and mayonnaise dressing; potato and feta cheese Rosti with mint yoghurt

White starter: Foie Gras & Smoked Duck Breast Terrine; Rocket salad & Aubergine Caviar on Toast White main: Pan-fried Blue Shark Steak on grilled Artichokes with sauce vierge; Tournedos of Crocodile on wild Mushroom Fricassee; Braised Ox Cheeks & pan-fried Ox Tongue

Dessert : Pear Bavarois ; Chocolate cups filled with vanilla & honey cream
Taking everything into consideration, Dans le Noir is definitely a bucket-list experience and something totally out of the ordinary which I want to share with my family, so we’ll be going back together soon.

Interestingly, on the evening before we ate there, Dans Le Noir, in conjunction with the Centrepoint homeless charity, hosted a special evening for young disadvantaged adults to have this rather surreal experience.  The dinner was held for 50 of Centrepoint’s vulnerable 16-25 year-olds to celebrate Dans le Noir’s 10th Anniversary and decade of successful charitable ventures. We wrote about this in advance in our previous issue but if you wish to know more about this the article is also available on our website www.barbicanlife.com under Restaurant.

You can find Dans le Noir at 30-31, Clerkenwell Green.   The dining in the dark experience is open from 6.30 pm daily (two sittings) and for lunch on Saturdays and Sundays.  Tel: 020 7253 1100 or you can book, and find out more information on this unique dining experience on the website at www.danslenoir.com.

Helen Hudson