Dans le Noir

A top London restaurant and a unique concept – but can the food live up to the memorable approach to serving it?

What’s The Restaurant? Dans le Noir

What’s It All About, JG? Lots of restaurants tell you that they have something different to offer. Lots of restaurants make a big play about how they’re not like any other. Dans le Noir is the rare exception where this might actually be true. Situated in Clerkenwell, London, the restaurant itself claims to offer a unique dining experience, and it absolutely does – because you dine in pitch darkness.

Not “in a room that’s quite dark” dark. Not “discreet level of lighting” dark. Not “well, I might stumble into/over someone” dark. Absolute, complete darkness is the state in which you will consume your food. Robbed of sight, so the theory goes, you get “a unique sensory experience”, if the website is to be believed. Although, in this case it is – whatever else you can say about Dans le Noir, it’s unlikely to be like anywhere you’ve ever visited before.

There’s three menus to choose from, a meat option, a vegetarian option and a fish option. Each consists of three courses, and you have no idea what’s going to be served to you. Oh, right. Probably should have mentioned that bit as well. The other thing the restaurant has going for it is that you don’t know what you’re getting beyond the three generic “meat/fish/vegetarian” options. Now, if you’re going for a tasting menu that’s not exactly unheard of, but for a restaurant which is serving what otherwise would be a traditional three-course meal it’s certainly unusual. The restaurant does go out of their way to ask you if you have any allergies or dietary restrictions, so there’s no need to worry on that count.

Anyway, that’s the pitch. Eating in utter darkness, with no idea of what might actually get put down in front of you. Sounds like fun, right?

Why Did You Give It A Go? Well, because it does sound like fun! And honestly, in a city like London, which has approximately seventeen bajillion different restaurants, finding one that’s able to genuinely distinguish itself with a concept is hard enough (as my dining companion and I discovered trying to actually whittle down the choices to anything approaching reasonable prior to visiting this establishment).

Is It Any Good? This is always the killer with a restaurant which hedges its bets on a unique concept, isn’t it? Because anyone can come up with something that’ll make the punters go, “ohh, that’ll be good!” but actually converting that into a dining experience worth taking part in is a whole other story.

Entering the restaurant itself, everything seems fairly… well, normal. You walk up a short passageway from the street into the bar area – lit normally at this stage. The staff are, it’s worth pointing out, all absolutely brilliant – lovely people, funny, warm and welcoming. You couldn’t ask for anyone better at front-of-house.

At this point, you are politely asked to surrender your mobile phone and any smart watches you might have about your person. These are placed securely in a locked drawer which you retain the key to, so you don’t need to worry about them going astray, but they’re certainly not pissing about when it comes to “absolute darkness” – no glow of a screen or distracting pings here.

After that, you’re led to the bar area where you can grab a drink or simply wait to be taken into the dining room. The cocktails come with a hearty recommendation – they’re excellent, and well worth the cost. Anyway, when you’re ready you are guided into the dining room.

And here you get the first hint of how things will go – you are guided by someone who is completely blind and uses a stick to navigate. You placed your arm on the person’s shoulder (and your companion’s arm on yours) and you are led into the dining room. It’s straightforwardly brilliant to see people who might otherwise be excluded from working in hospitality because of their disability not only be supported but actually be central to the whole experience. As you step into the pitch-dark dining room you are simultaneously stepping into their word. It’s simply fantastic.

Once (very carefully) seated, your food and drink are brought to you. My dining companion and I had opted for the meat menu. The rapidity with which the starter arrived was slightly disconcerting but say what you like – you certainly don’t have to wait long if you’re hungry. In order to receive your food you need to literally stretch your arms out while listening to your server’s voice, then carefully take the plate from them and place it in front of you. While you eat, you remain unaware of what’s in front of you, and without any visual clues you need to rely on your palette to judge what it is.

The second and third courses are dispensed in the same manner – arms extended, plate taken, mystery food consumed. These also both arrive at a fair old clip. There then follows a fairly extended period of nothing at all. This is, according again to their website, so we are, “freed from the weight of people’s gazes, preconceptions and social conventions, communication becomes simpler, authentic and spontaneous.” Or, you know, you might just be stuck in the dark wondering when it’ll all be over. One of the two, certainly.

Once you are eventually led back out, it’s back to the bar area so you have some time to reacclimatize to the light. Your phones and/or smart watches are retrieved at this point and you are given a menu where you can scan a barcode to discover what it is you’ve just eaten. The question, presumably, is whether your palette was up to the task of accurately identifying what you had just consumed. In my case I had a strike rate of about 60%. The first course I was miles out on, the second course I pretty much nailed, and the third I got some aspects of.

And after that, you pay and are released back into the world with senses refined (well, four of them anyway) and questions uppermost in your mind about how and why we perceive the world in the way we do. And whether it’s worth a reasonably hefty bill to do so.

How Many Of These Have You Been To? I can honestly say I have never eaten a meal in 100% pitch darkness before, so zero.

Would You Recommend It? You might notice from the above section that there’s no actual descriptions of the food. There’s a reason for this. It’s because the restaurant ask you to be discrete about what you’re having so as not to ruin it for other diners – if you go in knowing what you’re going to get, the one thing you’re not going to get is the full experience. This makes the act of reviewing a restaurant something of a challenge. The menus themselves are seasonal, and they set great store about the sustainability and traceability of their products, but nevertheless I’m opting to be discrete and respect their desire not to have the experience tainted for others by foreknowledge.

Saying that, and speaking in the broadest possible terms, the food was perfectly passable, but ultimately not all that remarkable. That first course that I failed to identify? My dining companion missed by a mile as well (and he has a noticeably better palette than I do, I feel no shame in admitting). And while there was nothing wrong with it, it wouldn’t exactly set the world alight, whether you could see it or not. The second course was better – again, not head-clutchingly outstanding or anything, but a good, solid main course that did what it needed to do. The desert was probably my favorite of the three – well-constructed, balanced and full of flavours which complimented each other and rounded the meal off well.

As for recommending it? Well for the experience alone, absolutely. There really is nothing quite like it, and it’s genuinely impressive what the restaurant is trying to achieve (and indeed has managed to achieve). I’m glad I went. I’ll be thinking about it for a long time, and as a dining experience it’s one to be both savoured and shared with a likeminded companion. But for the food itself? Honestly, you can do better.

Part of the problem with the starter and main course is that, for all that they were different meats (that’s not really a spoiler), the flavour profiles weren’t really distinctive enough to make them stand out from each other. They were fine as dishes, but if you’re going to put your emphasis on removing sight and depending entirely on your palette then you need to have flavours which stand out form each other rather than ones which are sort of vaguely in the same ballpark. Maybe this was more successful on the fish or vegetarian options – certainly the starter and main fish courses would be hard-pressed to be similar, on paper at least – but for the meat courses this just didn’t gell.

So recommended? Cautiously. The experience is great, the ethics of both the food and the servers are unimpeachable, and there’s no question at all that the restaurant earns its “unique” tag and then some. It’s just a shame that the food wasn’t a touch better.

Scores On The Doors? 7.5/10

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