Eyes for Food

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As a uni student, one of the pleasures of family friends coming into town is going out for an indulgent meal. Treated to the banquet menu at Hotel Hotel’s Monster last weekend, I was intoxicated by a spread as beautiful as it was delicious. Think pulled lamb shoulder jewelled by pomegranate seeds and pistachios, with crispy-skinned mulloway dressed with delicate baby turnips and confit leeks. As our series of artfully directed share plates came to the table, my friend Steve shared a story about a thought-provoking culinary experience he had in Barcelona: an evening at Dans Le Noir.

Run entirely by blind waiters and waitresses, Dans Le Noir (French for ‘in the black’) plunges its diners into inky darkness. As a guest, you enter the same colourless world as the waitstaff. By stealing all sense of sight, the restaurant’s enveloping blackness heightens the other senses. The fingers and the tongue become the key instruments of navigation and exploration. The menu is kept a mystery. Only a choice between vegetarian, meat lover or the chef’s surprise is allowed. The ingredients are only unveiled after the meal. Even the colour of the wine is withheld. Here, the diner is robbed of any ability to judge a book by its cover. No critique can be wrapped up in preconceptions.

This idea of not being able to see what you were putting in your mouth sparked a lot of nervousness around our table. ‘I truly despise oysters’ one friend winced. Her eyebrows knitted even more fearfully upon the suggestion: ‘So what if you accidentally ate one and enjoyed it?’

Dining at Dans Le Noir, Steve tells us, is a hyper-sensual experience. Encased in darkness, one instinctively reaches out with words. When you can’t see your friends’ lips to locate their voices, not only do you feel blind, but also deaf. The room is filled with a cacophony of other people who are trying to settle their own discomfort. Disconnected from familiarity, you experience an intensely self-aware meal.

Obviously the novelty excites. The restaurant has spawned a chain: there is the one in Barcelona, restaurants in both Paris and St. Petersburg ,and a fourth in London that featured in Richard Curtis’ film ‘About Time’. In the ‘foodstagram’ generation, where photos from cafés and restaurants are shared more for their artful design than for their bold or daring flavours, Dans Le Noir is a reminder of the importance of taste. Food is, after all, about flavour.

Thinking back across my most delicious meals, presentation rarely imprints my mind as strongly as taste. The best meal of my life was a chicken dish my family and I shared on a street corner in Malaysia. We sat on milk crates, practically in the middle of the road. Buckets of recently plucked chickens sat in the corner of the kitchen, some yet to be beheaded. Without pizzazz, our succulent poached chicken came on a bed of rice and beans. It was divine, a celebration of simple, fresh ingredients.

The conversation around the table reached the pivotal question: would we want to spend our time and money on a blind meal? Opinions ranged from unreserved enthusiasm to blunt disinterest. Personally, whilst the disorientation intrigued and tempted me, I would only be inclined to dine there once. I enjoy the drama of the dish too much.

As our desserts arrived, a mandarin and cacao dessert encased in golden honeyed shards, eyes widened around the table. My feelings were confirmed. Here was food that engaged all the senses, a theatrical design that invited childlike excitement. Cracking through the soaring shards we discovered hidden segments of mandarin, citrus sorbet and chocolate. This was a visual, auditory and taste adventure that would be completely lost at ‘Dans Le Noir’. This was a reason to be grateful for the gift of sight. Looking around, everyone smiled at one another. Food is about all the senses, as much about how it makes us feel, as how it tastes. Taking sight away reminds us of what there is to see: not only the food before us, but also one another.