September was Teen Month at Fusion, and so early in the month (September 3, to be precise) I decided to check out Eureka, the pop-up restaurant owned and run by 16-year-old chef Flynn McGarry. Which turned out to be harder than I’d anticipated. The only spot they had on offer was more than a month away, on October 4, and even then it took until September 27 for the reservation to be confirmed (and for an invoice to arrive via email, asking for me to pay $480, for three diners, in full, in advance, immediately).
A 13-course tasting menu cooked by a 16-year-old chef with no real institutional support? What could possibly go wrong? The three of us (me, my wife Michelle Vaughan, and Matt Buchanan of The Awl) turned up with phasers set to snark. But, in the end, Eureka was not the incoherent mess we half expected. In fact it was surprisingly organized and professional. Here’s what we thought:
Felix: Matt, what's your grade for EUREKA?
Matt: Oh wow, straight to the grades.
Felix: Yeah I'll give it a B.
I mean I can't imagine wanting to go back.
But it wasn't a shitshow (like I was secretly hoping).
Michelle: I don't regret going.
Matt: It was fine!
Felix: It was also $160 per person, plus wine.
Although the $160 includes tax and tip, so it's more like $120-$125 at a regular place.
Michelle: Either way, the price was very high.
Matt: It's best to compare it to other tasting menu places.
Which is part of why I think there has been more pushback here than in L.A.
We have a lot of tasting menu places on our collective plates. So to speak.
Michelle: That said, he's a young chef and this was a temporary space.
You also pay for ambience with tasting menus, right?
It was fine but we were in a catering event space.
Matt: Well you're paying for like… the journey
You are paying to give up control.
And be taken on an experience.
Submitting to an auteur's view of the world.
Felix: Also you're paying for "Look, child prodigy!"
Matt: Yes. In this case, that's much of the price premium.
Felix: It was like some kind of virtuoso theater piece.
I hate virtuoso theater pieces.
Matt: Still, the kid can cook.
Michelle: I felt unwell after, all the courses were too rich for me.
Felix: It was quite vegetable-heavy.
Michelle: They were delicious, but each vegetable was cured or soaked or aged and made it really rich. Then the beef pushed me over the top.
Felix: Mainly, in terms of veggies, I remember that dried-lettuce thing which resembled a kale chip.
Michelle: The dehydrated cabbage, tomatillo and tapenade. That was my favorite taste.
Felix: It was also the second course. Your taste buds are cleanest at the beginning of the meal. After a dozen courses (with wine) you can barely taste/remember anything any more.
Matt: The food was very solid; there wasn't a single weak course. There was also nothing new. Like, how many roasted beets did you say you'd had recently, Felix? And the foie gras ritz cracker was a thing at Alder. And the 29-day dry-aged beef was unexceptional (although the 100 day cap was nice.)
Felix: I guess my question for you is: Are there any dishes you're going to remember for a long time?
Michelle: The dehydrated cabbage, tapanade and tomatillo. Never had anything like it. And the uni was superb.
Matt: The uni, brined in sea water with carrots and coffee, was really nice, so was the pumpkin with mulling spice and apple cider.
Felix: Hm, I'd forgotten those two, but now you come to mention them, they were tasty. Although I've definitely had better uni dishes, and the pumpkin (like the parsnip) was a bit too sweet?
Matt: It takes a while to develop a voice, and a lot of that, in writing and other fields, comes through imitation. But I also didn't walk away with a sense of Flynn's point of view, which is part of why you go to a restaurant like this and spend this kind of money. Flynn is the centerpiece, after all. It's staged in a way that he's literally the center of the room.
Felix: Did you find that a little bit awkward at all? I mean the reason you go to this thing is Flynn, and you're naturally going to want to talk about him, but he's STANDING RIGHT THERE.
Matt: Right! And he doesn't do the Cesar Ramirez thing where you're afraid to talk to him.
Felix: He's not intimidating, but neither is he exactly chatty.
Matt: Hey man, he's a teen!!
Michelle: He's no ordinary teen.
Felix: Would anybody pay top dollar for this meal if it was a good, experienced chef serving up the exact same food? Or is this just a stunt restaurant premised on the fact that Flynn's a #teen?
Matt: Well these tasting menus are often predicated on novelty of some kind.
Or, like, exacting luxury.
This was very very solid. But I've been very fortunate to do a few tasting menus this year. And this was definitely, on the food front, the least memorable.
Michelle: Can someone explain to me what the point is? Are we there gawking at a teen who can cook well? Is that the purpose? What is he trying achieve?
Matt: I think he's doing this to learn. He's practicing, like any other teen prodigy. What better way to get good at this than to do it for six months straight in the most annoying food market in the country.
Maybe he should go work under Wylie Dufresne for a couple years or whatever. But also there's an argument to be made for learning by doing, which is what he's doing. And he's learning things he definitely wouldn't as someone under the wing at a great kitchen.
Michelle: While he's charging TOP dollar.
Matt: Oh I imagine that space is charging him TOP dollar lol
Maybe he'll open some crazy taco truck.
Maybe he'll be like 'this is all bullshit, fuck you food bloggers.
And become a doctor.
Matt: I mean, this was a great practice run! Like, the meal was extraordinarily consistent: to throw down 13 courses, and all of them be solid is a genuine achievement that is not the case in the majority of tasting menus I've had.
Felix: But there's more to a restaurant meal than food. And the non-food parts of the experience were, shall we say, less than you might expect from a place where you're spending $200/head.
Matt: I would argue that's true—it's minimal service but like, doesn't quite make up for it in the way that a lot of the other sort of sparse tasting menu environments do, in terms of attitude or vision.
Felix: OK so also, we had the foie course, the uni course, the caviar course, the aged-beef course… there were a lot of Expensive Luxury Ingredients going on.
Matt: Yes, but they were all very tiny.
You could fit all of them on like… a coaster.
Felix: Yeah, and the complimentary glass of Billecart-Salmon champagne at the beginning, I think they managed to get all 12 glasses out of one bottle.
I don't know what the rent is on that space, but I can see how he is going to want to maximize his income, especially since for the time being there doesn't seem to be any shortage of people willing to pay the cost.
Michelle: I think if you're a teen, and you're going to debut a tasting menu in NYC then you could be slightly more humble in price and presentation.
Felix: $160 is the price these days to go see a Broadway show. Would you rather see Alan Cumming's one-man Macbeth, or eat at Eureka?
I'd take Eureka, I think. But I'd take Hamilton over Flynn any day. And I'll go back to see Hamilton another two or three times quite happily.
While I feel no desire to go back to Eureka.
Matt: I think the chef's voice, or some kind novelty or over-the-topness, is so inherent to a tasting menu, that if you've been to another good one, this one is going to seem like it's missing something.
Felix: I think he needs to be having more fun.
It was all so hushed and serious
My favorite dishes have an exuberance to them which was missing here.
Or some other weird shit going on.
Matt: Or just like technical mastery so complete it overwhelms you.
But it never hit extraordinary levels in any of those categories, which is exactly why you go to one of these.
Matt: He's nailed the revival of the tasting menu boom. I feel like they were all a Thing several years ago, and then died down, and then this year we've had a boom again.
Felix: Flynn McGarry: So on trend
What's more on trend than a precocious teen
It's a timeless trend
Everyone loves to siphon some teen energy
That's what will get people in the door
I mean that's what got us in the door.
Late capitalism has made us all dementors hungry for teen souls.