Doing things outside of your regular comfort zone is absolutely critical, I believe, and when the opportunity comes up to do this on a weeknight over dinner, with no special safety gear or weird rigamarole involved then it is a chance that should be jumped at.
On Thursday night, Nicklearse Klau & I took an evening sojourn to Dans Le Noir – the comfort zone part, as probably deduced already by the Francophiles in the audience, is that it's a restaurant in the dark. As in, completely.
We were led into the restaurant as part of another group – hand on shoulder of the person in front – by our blind waiter, Cecil. It was fine until Cecil seated the other group and it suddenly occurred to me that I was standing in the pitch black with no idea where I was or where anything in the world was other than Nick, who had his hand on my shoulder. Sensing my hesitation he asked “You didn't lose them, did you ?”, to which I had to weakly reply “Yes”, and this was the first point at which the realisation of what was going on hit me. Having one of your 5 senses taken away is so much more than 20% of your sensory apparatus.
Cecil came and collected us and led us to our seats, and it just stayed weird. Everyone in the restaurant seemed to be shouting at each other, presumably because nobody was quite sure where the other people they were talking to were, but also maybe as some sort of compensation for the loss of one sense. The large amount of noise indicated that the room was quite big, which was another unsettling aspect of the situation – typically I correlate pitch blackness with small enclosed spaces (wardrobes, air conditioner ducts, WW2 subterranean tunnels, etc.) and yet my hearing was screaming at me that this was a wide open space, so Mr Brain's now confused about whether to feel boxed in or not.
Given that I've known Nick for about 15 years, we're sort of accustomed to the idea of conversation, however as he pointed out not being able to see the other person makes it really difficult because you lose all the body language and tells that you get used to (like the look that Marty, Nick & I give each other when one of us is talking bullshit – you may have seen this look before, as we seem to be giving it 98% of the time), but it's not like being on the other end of a phonecall, either.
Entree came out, and it became readily apparent that knives and forks weren't going to work. It was asparagus spears, with some kind of thinly sliced cured meat, and a little dish of something extremely cold (which I assumed was butter, but turned out to be foie-gras icecream). Pouring ourselves glasses of red was fairly challenging as well: I started with the listening for level method, but resorted to the old “use your finger as a dipstick” technique. It's amazing what you can get away with when the other person can't see you.
Weirdly, though the room was in utter blackness, every now and again you could see movement. I can only assume this was some sort of blood vessel movement on my retina as my eyes struggled futilely to capture more light.
Main course arrived and you could immediately smell beef. Braille-surfing my way around the plate I fairly quickly located the meat, and circumnavigated the dish to find… more meat. And across the other side, more meat. It turned out that they'd served up a fairly sizeable t-bone steak, and the veg was hidden underneath. Aaah, gnawing on a t-bone in the dark took me back a few years.
(Main course – T Bone steak, accompanied by d'Arenberg Footbolt Shiraz, pictured left)
About a third of the way into my mains I realised that I was hunched over low to the table, and my back and shoulders were incredibly tense – I wasn't sure whether I'd subconsciously done this out of some primal caveman food-defence urge brought on by the unfamiliar environment, or whether it was a futile attempt not to get beef juice all over my white shirt. However it turned out Nick was doing the exact same thing.
Dessert was some kind of creamy fruity delicate French thing with biscuits sticking up out of the top – and after eating with my hands all night it was a bit of an exercise to stop myself from licking out the little dish. Not that anyone would've noticed.
(Nick enjoying his dessert)
Interestingly, by this point in the evening the volume in the room had dropped dramatically, as people got more used to talking to each other in their surroundings. One thing I was a little surprised at was that there wasn't more interaction between groups/conversations – I think that probably would have been fun to just start talking to someone through the pitch darkness.
Upon leaving the dark room I was amazed at how disorienting it was to be back in the light. For some reason the whole experience reminded me of being in the anechoic chamber at Adelaide University – primarily for the disorientation one feels after losing and regaining a sense. Well, except that in the anechoic chamber it was 2 senses, really. And they weren't serving steak. Bad example. But in that chamber you had no light and no sound at all, so not only did you get the retinal blood vessel effect, but your ears started roaring as they tried to zero in on any sort of sound, and the loudest thing available was your own blood circulation and breathing. I seem to recall in that environment being able to hear the ticking wristwatch of the person next to me, and my hearing's NEVER been that acute.
In the final analysis it was a pretty expensive night out, however it was an experience which I think was worth having. I'm not sure it'd be easily recreatable in the home environment because someone's got to cook, and most people aren't accustomed to serving food in the dark anyway. I suspect I'd go back again, but not immediately. I thought the food – whilst not exactly complicated or over-pretentious (like you might get at The Fat Duck) – was fairly simple yet tasty, and that's an interesting exercise in itself; in the typical restaurant setting the presentation of the food is as important as the actual food itself, and at Dans Le Noir the presentation component was almost completely removed (unless you ate with your hands, in which case you had a small appreciation for it). I'm wondering, would it have been worth it having anything more complex on the plate ? A good case in point was the foie-gras icecream – my senses told me it was cold, meltable and a bit salty so I assumed it was butter, and from that point on it tasted like butter.
Like I said, interesting exercise.