Thursday, June 29, 2006

It's Always Darkest Before The Prawns

Gen and I had lunch in Dans Le Noir today. The idea is pretty simple: after ordering in the bar, you are lead through to eat in the dining room, which is pitch black. Totally dark. The food's received pretty shoddy reviews, but I was (and am) intrigued by the whole idea, especially since as a nice twist all the waiters are blind. Ooh, we pretentious would-be intelligensia sigh, what an ironic reversal. Aha! The blind leading the not-blind!

And it was, literally, leading. We chose our food - Gen had scallops with black pudding followed by lamb; I had the 'surprise menu' for the full 'holy fuck' experience - and were met at the entrance to the 'dark room' by Carl, our waiter, who was actually blind or at least doing a very good impression of it. And we had to be led to our table through two sets of curtains, hands on the shoulder of the person in front. Carl kept up a running commentary which was good, as I must have been millimetres away from walking into a pillar at one point.

We sat at our table - the only other diners were a very rowdy group of 6 - and I felt a moment of pure unbridled panic. Shit, I thought, I can't do this. I'm going to have to cry off. I felt guilty too, because the fact that the waiting staff are blind reminds you that you can stop this anytime you want; but they can't. I found myself opening and closing my eyes, and marvelling that there was no difference between the two. Living in London means that you're never in the pitch black, so you forget what real, enveloping darkness is.

To continue our adventures around London restaurant loos, I can report that the ladies here are not dark (thank god). You're not allowed to wander round on your own in the dark room, though, so you have to ask to go to the loo, which is embarrassing. Also, before you think this would be the ideal environment to dip your toe in the shallows of sex in public, remember that the entire restaurant is monitored by CCTV cameras (the footage from which, I imagine, gives the bar staff endless amusement).

Frankly, the food was unremarkable - my surprise menu turned out to be a seafood salad (ever unexpectedly found a tentacle in your mouth? it's an... interesting experience) followed by beef. No, pork. No, calves' liver! Oooh, cheeky. I had reckoned on my Restaurant Critic Powers (tm) helping me to identify everything pretty easily, but it's far harder than you'd imagine without any visual clues. It's also bloody hard to use a knife and fork when you can't see either, or the plate - and as you eat more and more, your hit rate of successfully forking stuff declines.

"There's not enough sauce," said Gen of the lamb. "But then, I can see why not. Imagine trying to eat soup."
My only minor stumbles were the two times I wiped my fingers (having resorted to them) on my dress instead of the napkin. In some ways it's much easier to chat in the dark - no need to worry about eye contact. I can actually imagine that a second or third date might be fun: the gimmick provides plenty to talk about, and it won't matter if you end up with a bit of spinach stuck between your teeth.

The darkness seems to prompt confidences: I've known Gen for two years, but never knew she worked as a teacher in China and took the Transmongolian railway (my own revelations were far less impressive). I suspect the next table were having fun too, and it seems to work as a party venue. Although at one point we did hear the classic cry, "You've got it in my eye!" (The mind boggles.) I don't think I helped Gen's enjoyment of the meal by remarking, "Gosh, imagine the damage someone with a machete and night-vision goggles could do in here!" and then reminding her of the end bit in Silence of The Lambs.

All the same it was a relief to get back to the bar and the light. "Oh thank god, " I remarked sensitively to our blind waiter, "I can see again!" (I immediately felt the pang of shame more usually associated with saying to a Big Issue vendor, "Oh, it's your last one! You can get home now.."

So: as a restaurant, it's the wrong side of average. (And not cheap: Two courses are £27, or £29 if you have the surprise menu.) But as a gimmick, as a sort of Darkness Theme Park, it's pretty cool.


Anonymous Laura said...

I am intrigued to see that they have an 'express lunch' menu. Is it really the sort of place one goes to grab a quick bite....?

6/30/2006 1:27 pm  
Anonymous towns said...

"Oh, it's your last one! You can get home now.." - They're not *all* illegal immigrants you know.

6/30/2006 1:44 pm  

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