I try to make a booking at Dans Le Noir?, the new London restaurant where diners eat in total darkness and are served by blind and visually impaired staff, although I still don’t think I’ve quite worked out what the point is exactly. Anyway, I call and speak to a very nice-sounding Frenchman who asks if he might call me back. ‘Iz just that I cannot find ze bookings book just now.’ When he doesn’t return the call, I email via the restaurant’s website. No reply. I am beginning to think that this is why blind people, on the whole, don’t make especially good restauranteurs. However, this doesn’t mean I have anything against blind people. God, no.
On the contrary, one of my very favourite Radio 4 programmes is In Touch, which I often find both interesting and moving. Indeed, I often wish I couldn’t see nearly as well, so that I could feel just that bit more part of the gang. Although, that said, who is to say I wouldn’t want a dog that can plump the sofa cushions and make tea and use the cashpoint anyway? Sometimes blind people just can’t see which side of their bread is buttered. They are quite like old people, who are always moaning, moaning, moaning, even though they get stairlifts and mobility scooters and half price at the hairdressers on Wednesday afternoons. Do they ever stop to think that I might like a stairlift, a mobility scooter or half price at the hairdressers on Wednesday afternoons? Well, I would. Old people can’t see which side their bread is buttered either, and they don’t even have an excuse. On the other hand, I suppose it is perfectly possible that they put it down somewhere and now can’t remember where.
Now, where were we? Ah, yes. Eventually, contact with the restaurant is made, and so it’s off to Clerkenwell for the express lunch (two courses, £25). The bar area at the front of the restaurant is lit, beige and perfectly pleasant, although lined by a row of lockers — you have to leave all your stuff in one before you can go into the dark — which gives it the slight air of a municipal swimming-pool. I meet my mother and her friends Ruth and Pia, who are as perplexed by this whole thing as I am. What exactly is the point? A notice on the wall says that there is already a successful branch in Paris which, having thus far served 60,000 diners, makes it ‘the largest operation raising awareness about disability’. So it’s about disability. But then Edouard de Broglie, who created the concept, is quoted in the menu as saying it’s all about how surprisingly different food tastes when the visual element is removed. So is it about experiencing food in a different way? I feel the drive behind the idea might be a little blurred. At no point, by the way, does anyone mention the word ‘gimmick’, possibly because it would be hurtful unless, of course, you happen to be in a deaf restaurant, in which case I’m guessing you can say pretty much what you like.
When it is time for our ‘sitting’ we are introduced to our waiter, Paul. Paul went totally blind four years ago (glaucoma), misses playing football and has a beautiful golden Labrador, Conrad, waiting for him behind the bar (who is to say I wouldn’t like a beautiful golden Labrador called Conrad waiting for me behind the bar? I would). We are led into the restaurant as if we are doing the conga, with a hand on each other’s shoulders. First, it’s down a dimly lit corridor rather like an aeroplane gangway at night, then into the dining-room itself, which is as pitch black as pitch black can ever be. Interestingly, or not, depending on your view of these things, as soon as we enter the total darkness Paul goes from being disabled to being able while we go from being able to being disabled. Is this the point? To re-arrange who, basically, has the upper hand? And, if so, is this challenging the helpless victim imagery often associated with disability, or merely reinforcing it? I only ask.
Paul helps each of us into our chairs. This involves quite a lot of touching. ‘Paul!’ I hear Ruth exclaim at one point. ‘I could be your grandmother!’ Paul helps us feel for our cutlery, napkins and glasses, tells us where he has put the bottle of water and that ‘the bread is on the ledge’. We daren’t pour the water and we don’t know where the ledge is. In fact, for all we know, there is no ledge and no bread and no water and this is how the restaurant makes its money. Plus, just think of the savings on tableware and interior design! You can order à la carte, but we have ordered the ‘Surprise Menu’, whereby you don’t know what you are about to have. The two courses can be either starter and main or main and pud. My mother and I are quickly served with our starters. I begin eating with the cutlery but soon give up. It’s hopeless in the dark. I eat with my fingers, scooping morsels up, and then shovelling them in. This bit is quite fun. The best thing about eating dans le noir, I now think, is that you can be really bad-mannered. I could even make V-signs at my mother and she’d never know (only joking, mum! Would I?). The starter itself appears to be some kind of fishy sausage roll — it’s salmon coulibiac, we are later told — and it’s not great, frankly. It’s quite stodgy and bland and underwhelming. If my sense of taste had been ‘abruptly awoken’ as promised, I think it would pretty quickly have decided it wasn’t worth the bother and would have gone back to bed.
Our next course, which I again eat with my fingers while absolutely not making V-signs at my mother, is some kind of lamb served with buttered leeks, baby potatoes and horseradish gravy. Again, it’s OK-ish but certainly nothing special, and as Ruth says at one point, ‘Wouldn’t it all be so much nicer if we could only see it?’ Ruth and Pia describe their pud as possibly a crumble, and a ‘dry and drab’ one at that. It turns out to be raspberry shortcake, although that doesn’t make it any less dry or drab. We exit thankfully.
OK, Dans Le Noir? is possibly worth the one visit. It is an experience, albeit a disconcerting one. You have no idea how big the room is, where the other diners are (you can only hear disembodied voices) or what they look like. You have no idea, even, if your own mother is making V-signs at you (Mum! You wouldn’t!). I’m not convinced that depriving you of sight allows you to taste food in a different way. In fact, your other senses are so shot all over the place that it’s hard to concentrate on anything bar trying not to tip your plate into your lap. And as for the food itself and how it tastes generally? Let’s just put it this way: it really is nothing to Braille home about.
Dans Le Noir?, 30–31 Clerkenwell Green EC1. Tel: 020 7253 1100.