My fingers probe blindly before sinking into a slimy, lukewarm unknown. It gives way as I grab and scoop it toward my gaping mouth. It’s meaty, spiced and sweet. I feel a dull pat as a portion leaps onto my clean jeans. Tagine, I guess.
Behind me, somewhere, a disembodied voice stage whispers: “Wouldn’t this be a great place for a murder?”
I’m in Dans Le Noir?, the London branch of a Parisian concept-restaurant where customers eat in a blackened out room. The restaurant challenges the idea that we eat with our eyes, mindlessly gorging on the picture-perfect meal.
“It’s a feast for rest of the senses,” said founder Edouard de Broglie. “And it gives you an insight into the world that blind people inhabit every day.” 10 per cent of profits, I’m assured, go to charities for the visually impaired.
The experience begins in a dimly lit, wood-floored bar area. Belongings are stowed in lockers; any sources of light – mobiles, watches – are forbidden.
Lizzy, my dining partner, and I choose from set menus: red for meat (my option), blue for fish, green for vegetarian (Lizzy’s) and white – chef’s surprise! Only when you’re leaving do they reveal what you’ve eaten.
We are guided through a dark curtain to meet Jack, a near-7ft blind man and our eyes for the evening. All waiting staff are blind or visually impaired.
“It’s role reversal,” he says as we enter the dining area, conga-style. “You become blind in the dark. See what it’s like to walk in my shoes.”
The darkness hits you like black air. It is a thick, velvety abyss. Your frustrated eyes strain to focus, your brain tells you they will adjust. They don’t. I’m a self-confessed carrot lover but everything is noir.
I’m in a sensory deprivation tank, at the bottom of a colliery, in a black hole. Waving my hand in front of my face I can’t see a thing.
Once sat, Lizzy is a bodiless voice in a Berio-esque symphony. Our awkward giggling is punctuated by: “Oh my god, this is so weird” and “Is that your leg?” We hold hands across the table to establish the whereabouts of plates, cutlery and each other’s face.
Decanting water from a carafe becomes a Crystal Maze-style test of dexterity and, despite putting my fingers in the glass to gauge its fullness, I manage to pour a little on my starter as it arrives.
My fingers skate over a sweet dressing. Rocket (I guess) has become a mass of wires, bruschetta thick, hollow-sounding sandpaper and there’s something moist and amorphous. Chutney?
My napkin, this evening, is my best friend. Cutlery has been dismissed as mere foreplay. My primitive hand-to-mouth technique looks, I imagine, something like a bird eating worms. I’m stooped like a vulture – but who’s watching?
The room is high on the strange freedom Dans Le Noir? inspires. I find myself exaggerating my tone of voice to compensate for the lack of body language, though am unable to stop my hand gestures. With the absence of eye contact, inhibition and judgement drains away and we chortle over gruesome bush-tucker anecdotes with nearby voices.
Once the novelty wore off, the food was underwhelming. Perhaps the lack of sight did compromise the flavour; perhaps in struggling to adjust to this new environment it was impossible to concentrate on the flavour. Lizzy and I had struggled to guess what we were eating. My starter, it transpired, was steak tartare.
The main dish – Wagyu beef and Roquefort sauce, pan-fried venison with root veg and a Morrocan-style lamb tagine – was a strange, tepid assortment. The rice pudding and apple desert was sickly sweet and fridge-cold.
Yet it’s hard to turn all Jay Rayner. I’m disappointed the food wasn’t better but for all the managers insist, Dans le Noir? is more like a social experiment than a culinary experience.
Behind a cloak of invisibility, the child-like fun of eating with your hands – the reason, I guess, behind the room-temperature main – and the sense of anonymity – Kate and William have dined here twice unbeknown to fellow patrons – are liberating. But at the same time you’re trapped: no sight, no belongings and no say in what you eat.
Blinking in to the harsh daylight, the evidence of the meal decorating my cardigan, I sense I’ve had a fleeting, and probably misconstrued, affinity with the 39 million blind people worldwide that the usher is so keen to remind me of. “There’s no darkness but ignorance,” she quotes Shakespeare from a stack of nearby pamphlets.
“We’re more than a charity case,” she continues, presenting the bill. “Blind people come here to work, it’s a profit-making business.”
Even with student discount the three-course meal for two was £92. As I rummaged for my card some couscous fell from under my nail mushed in my purse. This would be daylight robbery, I thought, if it were not for the conspicuous lack of daylight.