“Voulez-vous que votre serveur parle français ou anglais?” said the woman at the hostess desk.
I glanced over at my friend Alyssa. “Uh . . . français?” I said hesitantly. Alyssa nodded. We both wanted to practice our French, but the idea of dining completely in the dark and in another language was daunting to say the least.
That’s right—we were about to have dinner completely in the dark. Alyssa and I were in Paris for our spring break, having returned to visit our favorite city a little over a year since we studied abroad there. After hearing a friend talk about a restaurant in le Marais called Dans Le Noir, or In The Dark, we made reservations on a whim. The online reviews were pretty vague, but one thing was clear—we somehow would be having dinner utterly blind.
The host came out from behind the desk holding a key. She opened a cabinet to our right, and said in French, “Please put your watches and cell phones in here. I’ll lock the door so your things will be safe, but you can’t have anything that lights up.” We complied, and the hostess shut the cabinet door. She turned the key in the lock and handed it to Alyssa. Then she motioned for us to follow her into the gift shop, which was adjacent to the room we were in.
In the middle of the gift shop there was a table decorated with jars of spices and sauces. The hostess pushed the jars aside and pulled two wooden boxes out from under the table, placing them in front of us. Carved into the boxes were various grooves and indentations.
“Do you know what these are for?” the hostess said.
We shook our heads.
She smiled and pulled out a champagne flute, a wine glass, several plates and spoons, and utensils. We watched her as she fit each piece into its place on the wooden box—the stems of the wine glasses fit into the grooves on the left, the stems of the champagne flutes fit into the grooves on the right, and the plates and bowls each fit into its own notch. “So that you can feel where everything goes,” she explained.
We nodded our understanding.
“I’ll get your server,” the hostess said. She pulled aside a curtain and disappeared into a room behind her. She returned a few minutes later, accompanied by a man wearing thick glasses.
“Bonjour,” said the man. “Je m’appelle Mathieu. I’ll be serving you tonight. What are your names?”
“Alyssa,” said Alyssa.
“Alyssa,” Mathieu repeated. He looked at me expectantly.
“Lindsey,” I said.
“Wendy,” said Mathieu.
I sighed. Like most French people, he couldn’t pronounce my name. “Wendy,” I agreed.
“Are you ready to begin?” Mathieu asked.
We both mumbled an apprehensive “oui.”
“I want you to walk one in front of the other. Alyssa can go first. Wendy, grab her shoulders.”
As per instruction, we lined up in a weird imitation of the cha-cha-cha.
Apparently satisfied, Mathieu pulled aside the curtain that he had entered through. “Allons-y,” he said. “Let’s go.”
He pulled the curtain behind us and we followed him through a door at the end of a dimly lit hallway.
After ushering us through, Mathieu shut the door with a soft click.
We were submerged in complete darkness. Not the regular darkness that you see in your room every night, the kind of darkness that allows the soft moonlight to filter in through the window and illuminate the outlines of your furniture, but a darkness so black and impenetrable that I couldn’t see my hand an inch in front of my face. There was no point of squinting or straining my eyes; there was no difference if they were open or closed.
“The table is to your left,” said Mathieu. “Alyssa, walk a few footsteps and sit down.”
I felt Alyssa shift in front of me as she felt her way to the seat. There was muffled thump when she found her mark.
“Now slide over all the way to your left. Wendy, you next.”
With my hands outstretched, I took a few side steps until I bumped into something hard and unyielding that I assumed was the table.
“Now sit,” Mathieu instructed.
Unable to gauge how far down the seat was, I sat down too fast and too hard, probably bruising my butt in the process, then scootched along the booth until I bumped into Alyssa. I touched the table in front of me and felt what I assumed was one of the wooden boxes the hostess had demonstrated on earlier.
“Good job,” said Mathieu, once we were situated. “Now I’m going to join you.” With the ease of someone who had done this many times, Mathieu sat across the table from us.
He started by giving us a brief history of the restaurant. Dans Le Noir was a relatively new concept, Mathieu explained, intended to simulate the experience of being blind in a restaurant setting. Another factor involved in the restaurant’s concept was that the deprivation of one sense heightens all the other senses, which meant that our palates would be keener to the flavors and textures of the food.
“Now we will begin,” Mathieu said. “Put your left hand out so I can hand you your glass.” It took me a few tries to find Mathieu’s hand, but eventually I was holding a narrow object that I was pretty sure was my champagne flute.
“Now smell,” Mathieu said. I sniffed the liquid in the glass. It had a slightly floral aroma, but it was so subtle that it was kind of hard to tell exactly what it was.
Mathieu asked us what we smelled, and we both did our best to explain what we thought the scent was—Alyssa thought it was fruity, and I said I thought it was floral, although I honestly didn’t know.
“You can taste it now,” Mathieu said, and I took a cautious sip, having a harder time than I would have expected in guiding the glass to my mouth.
Sure enough, it was champagne. Bubbly and crisp and delicious.
After the champagne, we repeated the same process with red wine. Smell, discuss, taste. This was a little easier because red wine has a bolder and more distinctive smell than champagne; however, it tasted sweeter and stronger than any red wine I’ve ever tasted—more like cordial. The flavors were strange and unexpected to my college student palate that’s so accustomed to bargain bottles of Sutter Home cab or a twelve-dollar bottle of Apothic Red when I really feel like splurging.
Next came the part that I was really nervous for—the food. I’m a picky eater—I don’t like seafood or mushrooms, and things like lamb and duck are way out of my comfort zone. Being in France, I was worried that our meal might consist of frog’s legs and escargot. The meal was a prefixed sampler of a few different foods, according to the website, and of course we had no way of seeing what we were going to be eating.
“Wendy? Where’s your hand?” Mathieu said. I didn’t realize he was talking to me at first. I had been tuning out his French for the last couple of minutes while I wondered what was for dinner, and I forgot that I was supposed to be responding to “Wendy.”
“Lindsey,” said Alyssa. “He’s gonna give you a spoon.”
“Oh,” I said stupidly. Again, it took me a few tries, but eventually I managed to find Mathieu’s hand in the dark and take the spoon.
“Dip your spoon in the small bowl to your right,” said Mathieu.
I blindly felt all the dishes in front of me, not sure which one was the right one—it took me so long that eventually Mathieu had to grab my hand and guide it to the dish. Alyssa seemed to be having a lot more success than me.
After we had dipped our spoons, Mathieu told us to smell them like he had with the wine. I took a whiff and up wafted the unmistakable smell of truffle—having worked in an expensive restaurant for over a year, truffle oil is a smell that I would recognize anywhere.
“It’s truffle!” I exclaimed, happy to be getting something right.
We tasted the truffle, and then were told to spread the rest on pieces of baguette, which was a lot easier said than done. I enjoyed this course a lot, though, since French baguettes are obviously amazing and truffle oil is pretty delicious even for someone who doesn’t like mushrooms.
Next came a small dish of olives. It was difficult to tell what we were touching—lots of things are small and round—but once we tasted the olives, their flavor was unmistakable. I hate olives, so I tried to reach for my glass of wine to get rid of the taste, but I accidentally knocked over the dish.
“Shit!” I said, forgetting my French and my manners as I felt the olives spill onto my pants I had bought just yesterday.
“Wendy? Are you okay?” said Mathieu, and I irritably told him I needed some napkins. This whole being blind thing wasn’t my cup of tea.
The main course of the meal was a tartine, which is like an open-faced sandwich—at least we didn’t need silverware for that. Like with the rest of the meal, we smelled the food first, and the only thing I could smell was basil. After taking a cautious bite, I could taste both the basil and a whole slew of other things that I couldn’t put my finger on. The flavors were bold and delicious, but it was almost impossible to distinguish from one another. Mathieu listed the ingredients for us when we were finished eating—tomato, basil, onion, a bunch of other normal things, and finally, sea algae. I was grossed out but also fascinated to find out that a main ingredient of my meal was seaweed—and I’d actually enjoyed it!
Upon finishing our meal, Mathieu asked Alyssa and me what surprised us most about the experience. We both agreed that the weirdest part was not being able to identify foods that we eat all the time simply because we couldn’t see them.
“That’s what everyone says,” said Mathieu. “People are surprised to find out that taste relies so heavily on sight, and the perception that sight gives you.”
We exited the black room as clumsily as we had entered, and were told to cover our eyes when Mathieu opened the door. Bright light flooded in, and we both blinked rapidly as our eyes adjusted. I was surprised that spending only about thirty minutes in the dark made us so sensitive to the light.
Shortly afterward, Mathieu bid us goodbye and left through the front door—apparently, his shift was over. As Alyssa browsed through the gift shop, I watched him through the window and was surprised to see him pull out an extendable cane. Without hesitating, he began walking down the street with long, confident strides, using his cane to feel his way.
Shocked, I realized that Mathieu was blind—and throughout the whole meal, I’d had no idea.
In hindsight, I’d say that our dinner was equal parts bizarre and cool, but the realization that our server was blind was completely humbling. Alyssa and I spent just thirty minutes experiencing one dinner how Mathieu experiences his entire life—dans le noir.