Today’s post comes from the London Bureau of Offbeat Eats (aka my brother, Mr K. Piltdown):
Dans le Noir is most charitably described as an avant-garde theme restaurant. Originating in Paris, the concept behind the dining experience is that you eat completely in the dark, served by wait-staff that are blind. You pre-order a prix-fixe mystery meal, not knowing its composition, from a color-coded menu, red for meat, blue for seafood, green for veggie, and white for chef’s surprise.
The way it works is that you meet up for a drink in the (visibly lit) restaurant bar, which has less ambience than most of the dire dive bars that I’ve ever been to. On the ground floor, which resembles a Greyhound bus terminal, you are urged to lock up your coats, hats, and anything with a light in a bank of health-club style locker. After a glass of cheap wine, you are marshalled into groups by the maitre d’hôtel, who arranges you in a line, in an order based on which of the mystery menus you ordered. You are delivered into the custody of your blind waiter. In a manner disturbingly reminiscent of mustard gas casualties in WWI (see photo), you place your hand on the shoulder of the person in front of you and are led through a series of blackout curtains into the completely blacked out dining room.
You are seated at a table and given an orientation as to where your fork, knife, glasses, and napkin are located. Then the fun begins.
At a philosophical and intellectual level, there is interesting potential here. Deprivation of one sense can heighten other senses. The lack of sight can force you to pay more attention to smell and texture. You are more sensitive to sound. You have the intriguing issue of figuring out just what it is that you are eating. In theory, this milieu could be the backdrop for quite an interesting experience.
In practice, however, it is a failure. In practice, the complete darkness is the least of one’s complaints. You quickly learn to cope, or at least I did. Other issues overwhelmed the darkness. For one thing, the room is a cacophony of noise. The acoustics of the dining room are poor. With a full Saturday night’s complement of diners, the ambience of complete bedlam is actually psychologically amplified by the complete darkness, rendering it next to impossible to hold a conversation with anyone at your table. And, to say the least, having blind waiters shouting “watch out!” to each other is the height of irony.
Then there is the issue of the food. I can accept the cost, darkness, and/or noise in pursuit of a good meal. The problem is the Dans le Noir serves crap on a plate. And stingy portions at that.
I had a “Red” meal, with a starter and main course. Honestly, my mystery meal was about as tasty and filling as a coach class airline meal, for which I paid over £30. But at least it was edible. My mystery starter had two basic components, some sort of slimy salad based on an unknown fruit and shredded meat of sorts, and a roll of sorts, which was mildly tasty albeit reminiscent of something like a cross between a gyro and a microwaved “hot pocket.” My main course had two different meat dishes, one in a relatively bland curry sauce and the other was clearly some form of chicken in a vaguely Asian sauce. It was served with excellent rice and some mystery salsa. At least the red wine was palatable, if not distinctive. All I can say about the white wine, to which several of us were driven for purposes of self-medication once the red was exhausted, is that it was wet. I passed on a dessert course. Upon emerging from the darkness, the Red menu was revealed to me:
Starter: spicy beef hummus rolls, peach chutney and duck salad
Main: Apple veal curry; chicken with mushrooms, oyster sauce, and noodles; saffron rice with pepper salsa
Red wine: 2004 Ch. Cabezac (Carmenere)
I do have to say that, for being completely blind, the wait staff does somehow pull it off and seem to be courteous.
Evidently I got a better deal than my table-mates who had the effectively inedible “White” surprise-du-chef meal. The starter was plagued by “nasty” rhubarb and unrecognizable foie gras. The main defied description and was widely derided as inedible. It turned out to be saddle of lamb and Jerusalem artichokes with chicken livers and snails. The dessert course was described as edible but insipid.
My wife, myself, and a famished Anglican priest beat a hasty retreat up the street for a good, honest döner kebab. The kebab shop manager likes Dans le Noir?, as it keeps them supplied with hungry customers on their way to the #38 bus stop. I can think of no more damning indictment.