I don’t have a sense of smell. I was born without one.
YES, I can still taste.
NO, I really can’t smell anything. Not even that. Stop wafting it in my face.
It’s called Congenital Anosmia. It is 100% a thing. It’s a fair bit more common than you probably realise. Apparently.
I know it’s a slightly weird concept to comprehend if you are someone with the ability to smell things, but because I’ve never had one it’s not something I feel is missing from my life. And in the grand scheme of things, I think if you asked yourself the question: “If I had to live without one of my 5 senses, which would I choose?” you’d probably say smell. Probably.
But if you didn’t say smell and instead said that you reckon you could live without sight, I’d like to invite you to give it a try at Dans Le Noir, a restaurant where guests enjoy a surprise meal while they engage in conversations with people they have never seen before, and gain knowledge of blindness and disability.
Dining in pitch darkness, being hosted and served by a visually impaired waiter will change your perspective of the world by inverting your point of view. It is a sensory experience that awakens your senses and enables you to completely re-evaluate your perception of taste and smell.
On arrival, you are asked to place all of your belongings in a secure locker – this includes anything that emits light; phones, torches, watches with glow in the dark hands! This is to ensure that not a shred of light enters the room. You are then taken through the concept of the restaurant and experience, and you choose from their four different surprise menus:
– The White Menu: A completely surprise menu which includes a combination of fish, shellfish and exotic meats.
– The Red Menu: A surprise menu which will include a selection of meat-based dishes.
– The Blue Menu: Our pescatarian option, this surprise menu includes a selection of fish and shellfish based dishes.
– The Green Menu: A completely vegetarian menu (please note that we also cater for vegans)
There are a few packages available, price wise. 2 courses will set you back £46, while 3 will cost £54. You can add a glass of wine to both for an additional £8. My visit was part of a Christmas gift to my dad from last year which we have only just been able to utilise. We went for the three courses – him the red menu, me the blue.
We were then introduced to our server for the evening, Trevor, who promised to look after us for the duration of our meal. Though the restaurant doesn’t discriminate against those who do happen to have perfect sight, they have found that blind people are naturally more efficient in darkness than we (the non-visually impaired) are and are the best to do the job in such context. We didn’t ask, but we assumed that Trevor was at least partially blind. It is a true “transfer of trust”, and an amazing and positive approach to raise awareness about blindness and disability in general.
To enter the room you are asked to hold the shoulder of the person in front of you – we did so and Trevor lead us into the room. This room is pitch black. This might seem obvious, but it’s honestly a darkness that I can’t even describe. A darkness I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. It’s not like closing your eyes, or switching the lights out – you don’t get used to this level of darkness. You don’t suddenly start to see your surroundings, you don’t acclimatise – you sit in pitch darkness for an hour and a half.
Your food is served but you are not told what it is you are eating. Rather you have to use your remaining senses (which for me is only taste, touch and hearing) to work out what might be on your plate. I tried with the starter to use cutlery but found I was constantly raising an empty fork to my mouth, so resorted to using my hands. I actually found this really helpful when it came to detecting much of what I was eating – little cornichons were easy to identify by the feel and shape, and then the obvious pickle flavour – but the rest was tricky to identify.
The main course arrived and by feel we could tell it was a three-parter, separated by lips in the plate to essentially provide three parts in one. Again I relied on touching my food to predominantly work out what it is I was eating – I detected the smooth, slippery shape of a mushroom on one part, and the thick bumpy tentacles of an octopus on another. Two featured white fish that I struggle to distinguish and another had a thick sauce which I managed to somehow get in my hair!
Dessert was placed in front of us and once again we went in with the hands to get an idea what was on our plate, but we were advised we’d probably want to make use of our spoons for this course. From what I could tell there was a small bowl perched on the plate containing our dessert. Locating this made it easier to use the spoon and guarantee there was actually something on it when we raised it to our mouths. Dad and I both had the same dessert and going by texture we thought it was a trifle. There was creamy, custardy gooeyness and crumbly, spongey cakiness. We also worked out that the bowl could be eaten as it was made from chocolate.
Once our meal was over we were invited back out into the light to see what it was we had actually eaten. It’s an extremely strange and discombobulating experience leaving the room. Dad and I both felt a little uneasy on our feet – a bit like the feeling you get when you step off of a moving escalator or off a boat that has been gently rocking you for hours. The dizziness didn’t subside for about 5 minutes, and it was difficult to adjust to the light.
We looked at the menus and were fascinated to see where we had been wrong, right or completely missed certain flavours or ingredients! I won’t tell you exactly what we had in case you’re planning a visit yourself very soon and want to try and work it out for yourself – and also I can’t really remember! Pictures of the meal are provided, though whether the chefs go to the trouble of plating up the food with such elegance we’ll never know. I think it’s true to say that many of us eat with our eyes and if you don’t know something is there you may not realise to pay attention to all of the flavours you are experiencing.
I had been told that in terms of quality of the food, it wasn’t anything to rave about, but I actually found my meal to be really quite delicious. There are many strong flavours on the plate and some mouthfuls don’t always complement others, but on the whole, I was very impressed with our dinner and the quality of the cooking. I think the three courses is a wise choice – though there is a seven-course option I think in the dark that might just be a bit too much to handle and you might struggle to remember many of the dishes you’ve enjoyed without visual memory.
I haven’t had a dining experience like this before and I really would suggest that if you’re not afraid of the dark and have a good sense of trust and adventure, this is something you absolutely must try. Gift vouchers are available on their website and dietary requirements are catered for.
Also if you’ve ever fantasised about eating like an actual animal in the middle of a crowded restaurant, this is your chance.