See no evil, taste no evil: dining in the dark

Author
Peter Calder,
Section
On Trend,
Publish Date
Sunday, 2 April 2017, 12:21PM

Why the question mark? There is no question that Dans Le Noir? is dans le noir (for the benefit of those who didn't pay attention in French lessons, that means "in the dark", and it's where you eat your dinner).

This doesn't mean the lights are off: it means every photon of light is excluded from the room. You get to experience the literal meaning of the phrase, "I couldn't see my hand in front of my face."

A concept invented in France in 2004, Dans le Noir has since established a presence in Paris, London, Barcelona, Nantes, St Petersburg, Nairobi - and Auckland. It hasn't cracked Australia and it lasted 15 months in New York; what you infer from that is up to you.

It calls itself a chain of restaurants, but it's the food (in Auckland it's turned out in the kitchens of a mid-range business hotel) is not as important as what they call a "unique sensory, social and human experience". This is perhaps a little extravagant. You could get the essence of it by donning a blindfold at your favourite restaurant, though you would miss out on the chance to talk to complete strangers in the dark.

My mind kept running off into mischievous scenarios. I could surreptitiously remove my neighbour's plate and, when he noticed, say mine had gone too or sneak away from my table and let out a bloodcurdling scream, just for a laugh. If I took all my clothes off and no one could see me, would I really be naked?

We were there the day after the gala opening when, I gather, Rachel Hunter screamed a lot and Paula Bennett demonstrated an impressive unflappability. I felt like screaming, too, at times, not from fear of the dark but because the induction process in the foyer seemed to take forever. People flown in from France to get the franchise under way persuaded diners to part with their light-emitting cellphones - a prospect they plainly found more terrifying than sitting in the dark next to a naked restaurant reviewer - before we were led, in conga lines, to our eight-person tables.

Those waiters and waitresses are all blind or severely visually impaired, so are adept at moving through the space they have spent a day exploring. But even so, you'd be surprised how long it takes to get eight meals, with all their permutations (there are vegan, seafood and "trust the chef" menus) to the table. And, if someone at your table wants to go to the dunnies, add 10 minutes to the number you first thought of.

I have to give a big shout-out to Mel, the cheerful, funny and charming woman who looked after our table. It was intriguing being, for a few hours, a sighted person in the country of the blind, where she felt at ease and I was helpless.

But the name of my column is "Let's Eat", and my response is "let's not". One of our tablemates thought the food was lovely, but I should add that she thinks Miss Clawdy is the best restaurant in Auckland.

In truth, it had the indeniable whiff of hotel production line about it and $95 for three courses is $20 more than you'll pay at the Ponsonby Road Bistro, for example, and only $20 less than at Antoines.

It was diverting enough trying to guess what we were being served.

Tip: eat with your hands. Trying to use a fork on unseen morsels is a waste of time, anyway - but even an invisible steak (cubed) and mash is just steak and mash. At the end, in the light, you get quizzed on what you think you ate and discover that you can't detect tonka bean in a panna cotta, or if you're really dim, tell the difference between beef and lamb.

But it is not so much a "sensory experience" as a "sensory deprivation experience". The sense of sight is an important part of eating out. And your sense of hearing will take a battering here, because diners in the dark make up for their nervousness by shouting all the time.

If you like novelty entertainment, and enjoy playing with your food, Dans Le Noir may be just the ticket. But you will have to endure some pretty second-rate nosh.

Three courses $95 (matching wines $27); five courses $115 (matching wines $45)

Verdict: It's more about the dark than the eating out.