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Toby Young
Friday 10th March 2006

Dans Le Noir


Two weeks ago, I congratulated Oliver Rowe, whose new restaurant is about to open in King's Cross, for having come up with the best gimmick I'd ever encountered--he only intends to use ingredients sourced in London. However, it seems I spoke too soon. Edouard de Broglie, an enterprising Frenchman, has hit upon an even more impressive gimmick: eating in the dark. Dans Le Noir, his new restaurant in Clerkenwell, isn't just poorly lit--it's pitch black. You literally can't see the fork in front of your face.

What's the point? Well, that depends on who you talk to. According to the owner, who opened an identical restaurant in Paris two years ago, the point of Dans Le Noir is to make people aware of what it's like to be visually impaired. He only employs blind or partially sighted people as waiters and a notice on the wall claims that 60,000 customers have passed through the Parisian branch, making it "the largest operation raising awareness about disability in France". But if you speak to the general manager, Olivier Ansquer, he confesses that the visually-impaired are the only people capable of working as waiters in total darkness. The reason Dans Le Noir employs them, he says, isn't an act of charity, but a matter of necessity.

At other times, Edouard de Broglie produces an altogether different rational for forcing his customers to eat in the dark. "All your other senses are abruptly awoken and you taste the food like you have never tasted it before," he told one newspaper. "It makes you rethink everything."

That, too, seems a bit implausible, given that Le Dans Noir is hardly a gastronomic delight. On the night I went there, I was encouraged to try the "Surprise Menu" which turned out to be a starter of salmon tartare and a main course of fillet of beef. Such food might "surprise" someone who has never eaten in a French bistro before, but it tasted fairly ordinary to me. The only shock was the bill for me and my wife (her vegetarian "surprise" consisted of goats cheese and then more goats cheese) which turned out to be £69.25. That's quite high, considering the savings the restaurant must be making when it comes to interior design, furnishings and tableware. After all, it hardly matters what Dans Le Noir looks like.

So what is the point of being forced to eat in the dark? The answer was provided as soon as we walked in. There, in the bar area, was a correspondent from NBC's 'Weekend Today Show' doing a piece-to-camera about this "weird and whacky addition to London's vibrant restaurant scene". Clearly, the point of this gimmick, like every other gimmick, is to generate bucket-loads of publicity--and on that score at least Edouard de Broglie has hit the mother-lode. When my wife and I were shown into the dining room, we were seated next to a table of fellow journalists--and, as far as I could tell, there wasn't an ordinary customer in the entire place.

What can you write about a restaurant you can't see that serves cuisine you can barely remember? Well, our waiter, Brian, deserves some kudos for not dropping any of our food on the floor, which is more than can be said for me and my wife. I'd advise anyone thinking of going to Dans Le Noir to take a large, man-sized bib and to wash their hands before their meal since they won't be making much use of their knife and fork. And it's also a good idea to use the bathroom beforehand since trying to find it in the dark, even with the help of a blind waiter, isn't much fun. Apart from that, I can't think of anything else to say. The chances of me ever going back are--excuse the pun--vanishing-to-zero.

I'm beginning to get slightly cheesed-off about all these gimmicky restaurants. What's next? A gastrodome in which the customers are forced to maneuver their way around without the use of their limbs? A naked restaurant? A topsy-turvy Chinese in which the customers are encouraged to insult the staff? I know--how about a small, French bistro that serves good food at reasonable prices? Now that really would be something new.

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