09 August 2009
Now, it’s not often that you find yourself partaking in a conga line at the beginning of an evening’s entertainment – normally that curious pleasure is reserved solely for the initiation of drunken uncles once things are well underway – but then this was no ordinary night out. So it came to pass that my companion and I were instructed to form an orderly queue with eight other diners, each placing our right hand on the right shoulder of the person in front.
There was a sudden burst of excitement at the front of the queue, and we were introduced to Cyril, our waiter for the evening. In we charged, to the depths of the Dans Le Noir? building, down a ramp, through some heavy curtains – and into the darkest space I’ve ever been in, even when I only had amniotic fluid as a friend. Your eyes just don’t adjust. You become disorientated and the room seems cavernous, with voices and the jangling of fork to plate coming at you from all angles. I’m assured the room seats 60 diners, but when you’re in there you have no idea of the size, scale or layout. Which is why it makes sense that Cyril is blind.
Before descending into the dining room you’re given the option of four menus: red, green, blue and white – meat, veggie, fish and specials respectively. Being something of a fish fiend, I went blue, while my companion was feeling experimental and opted for white. To accompany, we’d have the special surprise wine, I declared. Which leads me to my first question: have you ever tried pouring yourself a glass of vino in the dark? The more hardened among you will know that it’s actually fairly simple – feel for your glass, pop a finger in, pour s-l-o-w-l-y and stop when your pinkie gets wet. Easy.
Using a knife and fork in zero visibility? Not so much. When my starter arrived – huge pan-fried scallops and haddock fishcakes – I approached in the only way I knew how, desperately clutching my cutlery and hoping for the best. Having successfully speared a scallop, ascertained that that was indeed what it was, and sliced some off, I realised that the whole charade was pointless. My sliver of scallop was lost in the tumult of my plate. “I’m eating with my hands!” declared my neighbour, Francine from Hornchurch. And so we flouted social convention and laughed in the face of polite society, picking up our food and gnawing on it in true caveman style.
From my initial trepidation, by this point I’d begun to relax. It’s easy to see how someone with claustrophobia might make a bolt for the door, but with Francine and her boyfriend Dave for company – “Everything tastes like melon!” – my companion and I didn’t have much time for staring into the abyss or being perplexed by the fact that if you closed your eyes, everything looked the same.
And the food! Oh, the food. My main course was as hearty and succulent as the first, with Mozambique prawns the size of John Merrick’s head, some other fish – possibly bream – creamy mashed potato and a cabbage, celeriac and fennel salad. And my companion, usually a fussy-eater, wolfed down his unbelievably tender Ostrich steak quicker than you could say, er, ‘squark’. Incidentally, they do let you look at the menu on the way out to discover exactly what you’ve consumed, but I think it’s a real oversight not to give diners printouts to take home. As I’ve just illustrated, it’s difficult to remember the nuances of a three-course dinner after a brief glance at the menu when you’re hopping on the beer scooter in your wine gilet.
The pudding was possibly the only other disappointment of the evening. A trio of desserts, it consisted of a chocolate truffle, berry sorbet and melon jelly. Regardless of what menu you’d chosen, all diners got the same final dish and it was… mediocre. And for the price, you expect more than mediocre. Luckily for me, my companion was footing the bill.