Food Matters Cellar Magneval: After Dark

04.12.2017 / words: Rich Lee / image: Fiona Digby-Jones

We experienced a sensory spectacle at Woking’s one of a kind wine bar, Cellar Magneval, who celebrated their fourth birthday with a meal and wine tasting in total darkness…

She might be good at disguising it, but India De Silva Jeffries is nervous, and with good reason. A little over a year ago, Thierry and Jo Magneval entrusted her to steer their beloved wine bar while they moved back to Thierry’s native France. Tonight, the 23-year-old bar manager and wine expert is about to take a literal leap in the dark to celebrate Cellar Magneval’s fourth anniversary.

Three months earlier, she’d tasked herself with coming up with a theme for the bar’s birthday party, an invite-only event that sees the bar’s most devoted customers fall over themselves to toast their favourite hangout every year. Much like the bar she runs, it had to be like nothing else in Surrey, an unforgettable thank you to her patrons and a tribute to the Magneval’s original vision for their haven of wine, cheese and bygone bohemia. Her answer? Turn out the lights.

“You’ve got Dans le Noir, a London restaurant where diners are served by blind people in the dark, and Pitch Black which runs blind wine tastings,” she explains. “But I thought, why not combine the two? I wanted something that was really going to stand out, and if you want something to work you’ve got to take the risk. And this is a big risk.

“The most challenging aspect of this is the unknown. You can practice and practice, but when people come in you don’t necessarily know how they’re going to react. And you don’t know what will happen.” No wonder she tells me she’s barely slept in weeks.

The Team: Claudio, India, Amber and Josie

Consider, for a moment, all that could go wrong in a pitch-black restaurant. Aside from the potential bumps, nicks and stumbles for diners and staff, a smashed glass or upended bottle could bring an already perilous service to a grinding, groping halt. What if there was a fire and a half-blind stampede ensued? And what about the food? If we ‘eat with our eyes’ (and our Instagram filters) then the meal surely has to transcend the senses in ways most restaurants can barely comprehend. Fortunately, they’re in very safe hands on that front.

The chef for the evening is local food hero Ben Piette, Head Chef and owner of London House in West Byfleet. A long-time friend of the Magnevals, he’s catered for the bar’s previous three anniversaries, but even he’s bemused by this most unorthodox of dining experiences. “Dining in the dark has its own challenges so you have to play around with textures and methods. Everything is at ambient room temperature, so the flavours have to be quite bold for sensory impact. We’ve had to think about all the senses as well as how you eat the food in the dark. It’s all got to be precise, so India chose the wines and we matched the food afterwards.”

Piette moves smoothly between tables laying up food (I avert my eyes so as not to spoil the experience for later) on cartons arranged into stacked tiers, with the Cellar team ghosting behind, arranging tables, glasses of wine matched to each course and a truffle salted flaming margarita to greet the guests upon arrival. India, Claudio, Josie and Amber work to the hard bounce of Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’, having swiftly abandoned the soundtrack to ‘Stranger Things’ when the Netflix show’s sinister theme proved laughably oppressive under the circumstances. When he’s done, Piette slips out into the night to hurry back to his restaurant in time for his own dinner service.

I duck through the curtained doorway to join my fellow guests, already clustered outside the entrance dressed, as instructed, in black smarts and good spirits. Their enigmatic invitations had only alluded to a ‘blind tasting with a twist’, so a giddy sense of mystery was palpable among the group. These were all long-time friends and passionate disciples of Cellar Magneval, its extended family, many having made it a second home since the bar’s launch back in 2013.

Even Thierry de Magneval was among them, returned from France to toast his bar’s fourth birthday with his loyal customers. Unsure exactly what his ambitious young manager had in store for them, Thierry was nonetheless full of confidence in India. “This is a challenging task she’s put upon herself,” he says in his salty gallic brogue, “but she’s been working tirelessly to pull it all together. We’re immensely proud of her.” He melts back into the crowd and laughter and backslaps before I could pointlessly suggest that all that could go wrong still lay ahead.

Finally, the team emerge to guide the giggling guests into the gloom, seating us one table at a time until all were inside. The only light comes in sparkly bursts from the flaming margaritas and from India’s lantern as she watches the results of her painstaking planning unfold within the sniggering shadows. She snuffs out the lantern and all is utterly dark and then she greets us, all tension gone from her voice, replaced by the smooth, funny cool of a seasoned host. “They say that eye-appeal is half the meal, so tonight we’re attempting to challenge that due to the fact that you can’t see shit.” The darkness erupts with laughter.

When her introduction is over, we’re invited to begin our first course. With utmost care, our fingers navigate the invisible spread before us like blind spiders, trying to build a 3D map in our minds of the glasses, the napkins, the tiers of food and the food itself. I brush something cool, gummy and cuboid, lift it to my mouth and a summer gazpacho bursts over my tongue in a tomato and pepper tide. I land on a sphere with a biscuity-thin shell that yields to deepest, richest parmesan. This is good, seriously good, and we’ve barely started. Over the course of the evening we’ll taste dainty salmon paired with frisky grapefruit; chicken laced with truffle and lemon thyme, bouncy brioches, sweet lamb, smoky chicken and many other morsels that defied identification without the ocular attraction we’re all so accustomed to. Naturally, India had chosen her wines well, each weaving gracefully around the flavours teased by each course.

Tasting such exquisite food and drink blind is oddly, but profoundly, illuminating; for the rightful return to dominance of flavour over appearances, and for the humbling reflection that we take our sight for granted over the visually-impaired for whom the light is always absent. And for someone like me, a so-called-professional who aspires to write about food in all its infinite colours and forms, the inadequacy of my taste buds in recognising food without the use of my eyes was more than a little disquieting. Or it would have been if I wasn’t having so much fun. 

Thierry de Magneval celebrates his bar's fourth birthday

Not that there wasn’t cheating going on, mind you. The brief neon bloom of a glowstick or the dim light from a phone or smartwatch gave them away, guffaws and schoolyard heckling hounding the offenders until they surrendered to the darkness like everyone else. By the time the lights came back on, the gratitude we all felt for such a unique experience met India with a thunderous applause that kept on rolling, through her heartfelt thank-yous and over Thierry de Magneval’s effusive appreciation for his friends and patrons on his bar’s fourth anniversary. When soul singer Najwa’s honeyed voice began to ripple over the crowd, so began the dancing, drinking and unfettered revelry that has made Cellar Magneval such a uniquely cherished nightspot in Surrey.

Not a single mishap, not a glass broken, bottle spilled or eye skewered, all agreed that Cellar Magneval’s bold experiment had given us an unforgettable dining experience. And its mastermind couldn’t have looked more relieved. “I couldn’t have pulled this off without my amazing team,” she sighs as she wipes down a table. “They’ve been so supportive and helped make this night such a success and so much fun.” She smiles back over the heads of dancers as a wineglass is raised to her from the other side of the room. “I’m very happy.”

Cellar Magneval is at 3 Church Path, Woking, GU21 6EJ.
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