Dans Le Noir? 30-31 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1
Saturday 31 October 2009
"It's just the thing for Hallowe'en," grated the Independent Magazine's top brass, in their don't-even-bother-arguing way. "Instead of reviewing a normal restaurant, where people eat a romantic meal with knives and forks in discreet lighting, you'll go to that place where everyone dines in spooky total darkness, you'll think you've gone blind and you'll pour red wine down your front. Shut the door on your way out."
I remember reading about Dans Le Noir? (how irritating is that question mark?) when it opened, in 2006. All the restaurant critics said the concept was ridiculous and the food atrocious. Was it still going? Amazingly, it was – and I learned that its sister restaurant in Paris is still packing in punters, every night. What could be the attraction? I found the answer, eventually.
You start in a dimly-lit bar area with lockers for coats and bags but nowhere to sit. It's almost militantly sparse and comfortless. Six of us went into the gloom in single-file, our right hands clutching the shoulders of the people in front, like that picture in the Imperial War Museum, of soldiers blinded by mustard gas. Steering us in was Naia, a waitress with a degenerative eye complaint; the serving staff here are all blind or partially-sighted; they're used to finding their way around dark rooms.
Inside the swishy curtains, the darkness is a real shock. It has a quality, like black air. Voices, apparently amplified, chuckle and chat around you as if it's quite normal to be in a dark room with 30-odd strangers. It's hard not to feel paranoid, as if you're the blundering new kids in town, surrounded by mocking locals and finding it hard to acclimatise. Angie and I held hands across the table, as we tried to establish the whereabouts of plates, cutlery, glasses, vase of flowers ... It took me a few seconds to realise the basic inutility of a vase of flowers in such a place. Within four minutes of arriving, I was dying to leave.
I moved my hand an inch to the right and discovered the sleeve of a chap's leather jacket, with an arm inside it. Sorry, I said. "No problem," he said. Do you, I asked, come here often? "First time," he said. "But it's our third date." Across the dark table, his companion issued a girlish rebuke. Things improved. The wine arrived, and I measured it into our glasses by the expedient of pouring it over my fingers. We talked to the neighbours, John and Atasha, about music and food. She'd just finished a law degree and wanted to specialise in family law. He's a drugs rep with an ambition to be a dentist, and ...
You want to know about the food? The food is ridiculous. In the bar, before entering the darkness, you choose either the red menu (meat), the blue (fish), the green (veggie) or the white (surprise!). The result is something between a tease (think Kim Basinger being fed titbits while blindfolded in 9 Weeks) and a torture. Only when it's all over and you're back in the bar do they reveal what you were eating (with photos.) You soon realise it's hopeless to use a knife and fork, and you must use your fingers. In anticipation, the food is served tepid – but, perversely, it isn't finger food. Picking up slithery, gloopy ravioli and dabbling your fingers in tepid mushroom sauce is no fun. Nor is the contemptuous way the "cooks" throw stuff randomly on the plate. Here's the Meat Course starter: some baked goat's cheese alongside bread-sticks wrapped in pancetta. Here's out-of-season, flavourless asparagus, a bacon-flavoured Cheesy Wotsit (later described a "lardon") and the single slimy ravioli. I stuffed it all in my mouth, feeling like Barbara Cartland at a bush-tucker trial. It was uniquely repellent.
Mains were even worse. A slab of terribly bland meat and a bread-crumbed parcel of something underneath – was it a Turkey Twizzler? Were they having a laugh? The news, later, that I'd allegedly enjoyed veal Milanese, pan-fried breast of duck and roasted venison with chicory and walnuts sounded the purest fiction. Duty insisted I had a pudding, which was a surprisingly okay, if too-sweet, lemon posset surrounded by little fruit tarts and chocolate petits fours.
There was one positive feature. Empowered by the darkness, we got on with our neighbours like a domestic inferno. Using my Sherlockian skills, I deduced that John was a short, bulky West Country chap in a sports jacket, and Atasha was a Sloane Ranger with surprisingly trashy long nails (I could hear them). Outside in the light, they turned out to be an Afro-Caribbean couple, six-feet tall and slender, like Calvin Klein models. We retired to a cocktail bar for an hour. And that seemed the only point of Dans le Noir – to make unexpected friends in the gloom. Otherwise it's hard not to feel it's the most shameless (and expensive) gustatory illusion since the Feeding of the 5,000.
Dans Le Noir? 30-31 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1 (020-7253 1100)
Food Ambience Service
About £120 for two with wine
Tipping policy: "No service charge; all tips go to the guides"
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