The Underappreciated Art of the Minimalist Meal

By Besha Rodell
09 October 2018
Dining, Restaurants, N/naka, Noma, Sushi Saito, Fleet
n/naka, Los Angeles
Food critic Besha Rodell's paean to gastronomical restraint.

I remember the moment when excess broke me. I was working as a restaurant critic in Los Angeles, and California was about to ban the sale of foie gras. My editors decided to run a story about the best foie gras dishes in town – a last hurrah leading up to the ban. And so, for a week, my job was to go from restaurant to restaurant, eating slabs of fatty goose liver.

I was on my third restaurant of the day, Animal, staring down their famous foie gras loco moco. It’s hard to think of a dish that better displays the hedonism of culinary excess: a mound of fluffy Carolina Gold rice came topped with a beef burger, slices of Spam, a fried egg, and a fat slice of seared foie gras. The whole thing was doused in sticky house-made teriyaki sauce, with splurts of sriracha here and there.

I put the first bite of fat upon fat upon salt upon fat into my mouth (although not my first of the day), and my body rebelled. My face felt hot and I became instantly woozy. My peripheral vision turned white. I pushed away from the bar and stumbled towards the bathroom, where I crouched on the floor, head in my hands, for 15 minutes or so. I had become allergic to gluttony.

Eating food for a living has different effects on different people, but this is the most profound thing it has done to me. Before my career as a restaurant critic, I was a lover of culinary excess – my wedding anniversary tradition with my husband for years was to try to eat in as many restaurants as possible in one city, in one night. I loved long, elaborate tasting menus that left me feeling as stuffed as those poor geese.

Today, I tend to think that the mark of a great tasting menu is to get through it feeling satiated but not stuffed. This requires restraint, and elegance, and it forces creativity. It’s easy to make something taste good and seem luxurious when you douse the plate in cream and butter and top it with foie gras. Take away those crutches and a chef must deliver astonishment in other ways: vegetables become more important, herbs are given a starring rather than a supporting role, decadence must be crafted from texture and flavour.

I’m in luck, as it turns out, because food – particularly fine dining – is heading in this direction, globally. Japanese cuisine – with its focus on pristine, simple ingredients – has had a huge influence in recent years, much to my delight. Nordic cooking, too, has garnered the world’s admiration. David Chang, who once famously derided California cuisine as being nothing more than “a fig on a plate,” now serves a simple fruit plate for dessert at his own California restaurant. Restraint is on the rise.

When I think of the minimalist cooking that works, I’m not only talking about that one perfect slice of sashimi – although I’d be happy to eat raw fish and rice and nothing else most days. Minimalist does not have to mean simple, and in fact some of the best examples of pared-back food is incredibly complex to make and serve. Just ask the poor interns individually peeling walnuts by hand in the kitchen of Noma.

Recently, I sat at a counter at Fleet, one of Australia’s most highly lauded new restaurants, and ordered the tasting menu. I asked that they not go too hard on fattier dishes, but when the first course arrived I breathed a sigh of relief. It was, basically, a raw radish on a plate. There was a light coating of honey on the bulb, and it had been crusted in sesame seeds. I bit into the snappy, bitter vegetable and tasted the sweetness of the honey and the nutty crunch of the sesame and sighed. It was simple and perfect. And even seven courses later, I did not have to crouch in the bathroom to recover.

Four restaurants that epitomise food minimalism:

n/naka, Los Angeles USA
Chef Niki Nakayama does an incredible modern kaiseki menu that is Japanese at its heart, but has elements that are pure California. Perfect sashimi and simple beautiful seared wagyu make up some of the stunning 13 courses.

n/naka, Los Angeles

noma, Copenhagen Denmark
You probably don’t need me to tell you that you should eat at noma, and if you have the money and inclination and doggedness it takes to book a table, you’ve probably already done so. But it’s the king of beautiful minimalist cooking because it’s the best.

noma, Copenhagen

Sushi Saito, Tokyo, Japan
I could list any number of Tokyo sushi temples here, so look up “best sushi Tokyo” for a cornucopia of minimalist pleasure. Saito has it all, though: a counter seating only nine people, a serene, almost monastic atmosphere, and some of the world’s most pristine fish and fussed-over grains of rice. Oh, and three Michelin stars.

Sushi Saito, Tokyo

Fleet, Brunswick Heads, Australia
Another short counter where only a lucky few can sit, another single-minded chef working wordlessly, but in a small town in Australia rather than a sparkling Tokyo building. At Fleet, chef Josh Lewis takes a few fresh ingredients and manages to pull intense flavour and pleasure out of every element.

Fleet, Brunswick Heads

From the October issue of GQ Middle East