Dining in the Dark: Dans Le Noir

I had been in complete darkness before – just never for a three-course meal and for such an extended period of time. Without sight, my other senses reeled and cavorted in the dark space. I wasn’t the only one feeling disoriented. Disembodied voices bellowed from the blackness. Confused, everyone yelled and the cacophony added to the confusion.

I believe I first heard about the concept of dark dining when I read this NY Times article, or some other article like it. Dark dining (eating in complete darkness) was first conceived in Zuerich, Switzerland by Juerg Spielmann and Stephan Zappa as a way of increasing labor opportunities for the blind and visually-impaired. They started Blinde Kuh (literally translates to blind cow, which is the name of Blindman’s buff in German). This concept has taken off all over the world and now there are several dark dining restaurants.

From the start I was interested in this because our perception of taste is influence by sight and smell (other articles here and here). Being the curious sort, I wanted to try this for myself. I was excited when I found that Bloomspot was offering a discount for Dans le Noir in New York City. Ben agreed to do this with me, not because he thought it would be great, but because he loves me. Awww. . . .

Because Ben is really a 70-yr-old retiree in a 30-yr-old man’s body, our dinner reservations were for 6 o’clock. We were instructed to arrive at 5:30 so that they could prepare us for dining in the dark (e.g., signing waivers, putting purses away in lockers, etc). I believe 6 o’clock is their first sitting because although the general welcome area was somewhat empty when we first arrived, it got full fast. It took them a while to settle all of us and get us ready to go in, which was the first sign of a very looooong dinner.

The restaurant is completely dark. You can’t even see your hand right in front of your face. We were at the mercy of our guide/waitress. I don’t think we got seated until 6:20. Another waiter came to give us warm rolls and water around 6:30. Ben and I shared a table with another couple, which we liked because they were lively and fun. We talked about how disorienting the darkness was. Ben and I sat across from each other and luckily for us, on one side, there was a wall, which we both found very comforting. Often I leaned against it for both physical and emotional support. The warm rolls were very nice, but it was annoyed how there was only three rolls for four people. Then we asked for another basket, again only three rolls for four people.

Then there was another looooooong wait. The interminable wait was not solely a figment our imagination because time seemed to drag in the darkness. The other couple had a Broadway show to go to at 8, they occasionally would sneak a peak at their watch (under the tablecloth and announce the time to us). They had told the waitress that they had a show and the management promised to expedite their meals, but it was anything but that. At 6:45, we were served our appetizers.  A little after 7:30 we were given our entree. Around 8, we were given our dessert.

Dans Le Noir has four different menus that are a surprise. You don’t know what you ate for sure until after the meal. The White Menu (chef’s choice) is a complete surprise, Blue Menu is seafood, Green Menu is vegetarian, and the Red Menu is meat. Ben and I both chose Red. Normally we like to pick different things so we could share and taste several things, but having the same menu proved to be an excellent choice when dining in the dark. This way we didn’t have to try to share our food in order to taste what the other person had and we had the fun of sampling something at the same time and trying to guess what we were eating. I won’t give the full menu here (but if you’re curious, feel free to send me a message). We had a funny moment during our entree. Ben was eating one type of meat and I was eating another piece of meat that was on our plate. He declared that it was something and I vehemently disagreed. He argued back. A few minutes later we figured out that we were eating different things. It was a bit like the parable of the blind men feeling the elephant.

Dans Le Noir sells itself as a novel concept in dining, where your taste would be enhanced by dining in the dark. I would actually argue would them about them. It’s precisely because we are in the dark that the sense of taste is actually dulled. All the subtle flavors (which I only found out when they revealed the menu to be later) were completely lost. The plating of the food plays into the sense of theatre and drama of fine dining, but it’s gone in dark dining. The drama and theatre have to come elsewhere, but Dans Le Noir failed to provide that for us. Instead, Ben and I left that we were left lost and alone in the dark as we waited and waited for one plate of food to arrive. After we finished our dessert, we waited again for a really long time. Finally frustrated with being neglected, Ben suggested that we escape. Before going in, they warm you not to leave your seat, and instead if you need to exit (to use the restroom) to call a guide over. Well, there was no guide anywhere and we hadn’t seen her in a long while. She actually took away our water pitcher with a promise to come back and never did. I agreed because I had a feeling that they had forgotten about us.

Then out of nowhere a voice asked us if we wanted to leave. We eagerly confirmed that request and she escorted us out. She said that she heard our plans for escape.

Afterward Ben and I discussed our experience of dining in the dark. It’s not so much a novel concept, but a gimmick. I’m not sure how they’re going to survive. A three-course meal (not including alcohol) is $69/person. The Bloomspot deal gave us a dinner for two for $83, including tax and tip, our meal was a bit more than $100. While in NY, dinner for two in the $100-150 range is quite normal, I’m reluctant to spend that sort of money unless I feel I’m getting an experience for it. We both felt that even with the discount, the dinner was a bit overpriced.

The portions were rather small and this is coming from a person who loves going to small plates restaurants. I saw pictures of the plates on the menu when it was revealed to us and definitely our portions were not as big as what as pictured. For example, for the entree, we were supposed to have three pieces of a side, and we were both only given one. For our dessert, we should have been given a few slices of fruit. I had one. Ben had none. We did appreciate that we were given some exotic meats for our entree, which helps us from feeling like we were ripped off. But the lack of ceremony, plates were merely dumped in front of us and then we were abandoned in the dark with interminable wait in between courses made us feel a bit frustrated. Unfortunately the service was truly lacking at Dans Le Noir, and without vision helping this restaurant, they really needed service to be outstanding to turn this into an incredible experience, rather than a silly gimmick.

If anything, most of the fun came from the fact that Ben and I sat with a really fun couple, whose lively sense of humor made this a fun dinner.

Two out of five stars.

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