Only 4 senses

We had a lovely dinner last night. Take a look at my photos! The starter:

Here’s the main course:

And check out the dessert!

No, I don’t have a problem with my camera. This is dining in the dark, first launched in Paris in 2004 at Dans le Noir. Similar restaurants have opened up in several other major cities around the world since then, and now it’s Brussels’ turn.

It’s a fascinating concept. While other restaurateurs try to involve as many senses as possible, this restaurant removes one: sight. You can’t eat the dish with your eyes before you take a bite, as the whole meal takes place in pitch darkness. Dining in the dark has two aims – one is to focus your attention on your remaining senses, so you concentrate on the flavours and textures rather than being distracted by the colours and shapes on the plate. Secondly, it gives you a small insight into the lives of the blind (all the waiters are blind) who eat this way every day.

So we arrived in Galeries St Hubert at 7pm and were lead down into the basement. We sipped aperitifs while the other diners arrived (about 30 in total). TV Brussel were there filming – they didn’t interview us, but we might be in the background of a couple of shots. One by one our names were called and we were escorted to the entrance to the dining room, where we met Freddy, who was to be our guide for the night. We lined up behind him, our hands on the shoudlers of the person in front, with another couple behind us, and he lead our five-person conga through three sets of thick velvet curtains and into the darkness. We shuffled along until we reached our table where he guided us to our chairs and described what was on the table. Once seated, our fingers skittered over the table like nervous spiders, locating cutlery, charger, glasses and bread basket.

The first dish arrived shortly afterwards, and appeared to be some kind of fish and crab salad. The strongest flavour was the rocket. In fact it seemed to have more flavour than usual, while the fish had less impact. Several things struck me. One – when you lift your fork it’s often hard to know whether you’ve actually picked anything up or not. Sometimes you’ll just get a mouthful of fork, other times you’ll have an enormous lump of food, but you don’t put it back down for fear of not being able to find it again. Finally you start to learn by the weight of the fork whether there’s anything on it or not. Two – I held my head much closer to the plate than usual, so as to avoid messy accidents. Three – it’s hard to know when you’ve finished, although I solved that one by simply running my fingers around the plate in search of any remaining morsels.

Pouring the wine was less fraught with peril than I expected, as I already knew the blind technique of hooking your finger over the edge of the glass to feel the level of the liquid. I still managed to spill a little, but that was probably more to do with the amount of wine I consumed affecting my judgement. Throughout we chatted with the other couple. The darkness had less impact on our conversation than might have been expected. Admittedly we couldn’t judge facial expressions or body language, but anyone who’s used a telephone is used to that. What I did find was that my head moved a lot more. Normally I’d sit fairly still, moving my head from side to side as necessary, but freed from the gaze of others I waggled up and down and back and forth like Stevie Wonder on a sugar high. I kept my eyes open most of the time, as it was difficult to overcome the instinct to try to see what was going on, even though I knew there was no chance of making anything out. Closing and opening my eyes made no difference – it was absolutely dark either way. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced so complete an absence of light before.

The main course arrived – some kind of fish (my wife thought it was swordfish, based on the texture) with mashed potatoes and chopped onion. Nice enough, but not spectacular. I guess the organisers feel that the experience of dining in the dark is original enough that anything you eat will be fun, but I wouldn’t have minded something a little more tasty and complex. It could have been worse – I’m just thankful they didn’t serve spaghetti, or a piece of meat that needed cutting up with a sharp knife.

The dessert was a delicious crème brulé, with a glass of coffee-caramel-vanilla liqueur called “After” (they were the main sponsor and also provided drinks and a free recipe book in the bar afterwards).  And then we were lead, blinking and stumbling, back out into the light. It had dragged on far too long for what was a relatively simple three course meal, but it was a fascinating experience which I’d recommend to anyone.