Almost all the buzz about Nusr-et, set in the former China Grill space in prime Midtown Manhattan, has been negative. The New York Post labeled its review “Public Rip-Off No. 1” and noted that after a $521.45 dinner for three, critic Steve Cuozzo still wanted a snack. GQ referenced mundane, rather tough steak, terrible cocktails, and $9 bottles of water because the restaurant declines requests for tap.
The restaurant is home to Turkish butcher sensation Nusret Gökçe, known as Salt Bae. He has close to 11 million Instagram followers, famous friends such as DJ Khaled (Khaled Mohamed Khaled), and a panoramic way of seasoning steaks that is the most notable culinary meme since Emeril Lagasse said “Bam!” One re-posted YouTube video of his signature move—a crane pose-like sprinkle of salt on a finished steak—has racked up over 4 million views.
In advance of my visit to Nusr-et, the signs for that kind of meal were auspicious. Hours before my dinner came news that the restaurant was under investigation by New York’s Health Department: Salt Bae would now have to wear gloves when salting meat. My dinner guest was Robert Sietsema, senior critic for Eater.com and one of the early visitors to Salt Bae. (His less-harsh-than-most review took the position that a meal there is performance art as much as a steakhouse spread. Spoiler alert
The first thing you see when you walk into the restaurant is a circular bar surrounded by red velvet ropes and staffed by bartenders in leather aprons; you could be at a nightclub. Above is a monster cartoon image of the chef sprinkling salt into the air. On the cocktail list is a #Saltbae Old Fashioned, made with ginger syrup and Scotch, instead of bourbon—quite good, if pricey at $21. Yet its actual cost is $26.64: The restaurant adds an 18 percent service charge, but you wouldn’t know that without asking since it doesn’t deliver itemized bills, and what you’re asked to sign has a very visible gratuity line.
Almost immediately upon sitting down, expect to make the acquaintance of the guy wheeling the “meat sushi” cart. Unless you’re good at saying no, you will find yourself watching a meat sushi performance that comprises wrapping thinly sliced raw tenderloin around some undercooked, under-seasoned rice, brushing the top with teriyaki glaze, and incinerating it with a blow torch for a good 30 seconds. It’s an early occasion for guests to whip out cell phone cameras (and maybe a warning to tie back any long hair.)
That’s nothing compared to the effect when the chef makes an appearance in his signature look: fitted, v-necked, white T-shirt with slicked coiff. It’s as if Rihanna strolled in. Initially, there’s no salt sprinkling. Salt Bae simply works the room, shaking hands. Robert and I begin to worry: Would the Health Department threat end the seasoning show? Could a high-styled handshake be Salt Bae’s new meme?
You want to hate the place, to dismiss it. There are better, less-expensive, steaks just a few blocks away, dry-aged and funkier than what you’ll find at Nusr-et.
Yet, when Salt Bae shows up to slice and season our steak, it’s embarrassingly thrilling, like watching your favorite cheesy movie. He poses for infinite pictures. Apart from a few short exchanges, he’s a silent presence. He doesn’t seem like a guy who owns the place; he’s more like a performer who expertly works the room, giving nothing of himself away. There’s not a moment that the crowd—a 50/50 mix of business men and women in jackets and tourists in branded sports apparel—isn’t hoisting a camera phone in his direction.