A Sprinkle, a Snapshot, a Sensation: My Dinner With Salt Bae
Posted February 6, 2018 5:33 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — Halfway through dinner, my lap was speckled with white crystals of salt dropped from the right hand of Salt Bae himself.
Salt Bae hadn’t meant to salt my trousers, as far as I could tell. He was aiming for the rib-eye on the table in front of me at his new midtown Manhattan restaurant, Nusr-Et Steakhouse, but he had raised his fingers up to his scalp line before he allowed the salt to start its free fall, and a good deal of it had gone wide of the mark.
I was thrilled, of course. I had a souvenir of the gracefully stylized and mildly preposterous gesture that is the basis of Salt Bae’s fame, the source of his nickname, and the point of his restaurant. Of course, everybody in the dining room was there for souvenirs, but the other suckers would have nothing to show off but a photo or video.
The perceptive reader will have already spotted the flaw in my thinking. Because my souvenir would vanish the moment I stood up, the only way to show it off would have been calling my friends to come see me in my chair at Nusr-Et. So in the end I simply pointed my phone at my fly and snapped a picture.
A few years ago, restaurants were still a refuge from the electronic grid, places where we could eat and talk without converting existence into digital form. Phone cameras changed that, and now it often seems that the point of going out to eat is to post an image proving we were there.
Nusr-Et takes this process to its inevitable conclusion. It is a restaurant that recreates many times a night the viral Instagram video through which a man named Nusret Gokce became a meme called Salt Bae; that encourages paying customers to recreate nearly identical videos of Gokce in action; and invites them to post those videos to Instagram, where they can entice other people to come and see the meme made flesh for themselves. In its perfect circularity, its pure subordination of lived experience to mediated experience, Nusr-Et may be New York’s first true 21st-century restaurant.
It may surprise some New Yorkers to hear that Gokce’s career as a restaurateur is not a social media creation. He already had a chain of Nusr-Et steakhouses and burger places based in Turkey before his brief Instagram video, “Ottoman Steak,” lit up screens around the globe a year ago.
Because Gokce has been a restaurateur since 2002, his Manhattan outfit, which opened three weeks ago on the ground floor of Black Rock, the CBS tower, is not as much of a mess as you might expect. But on the evidence of my one meal there, it is still messy around the edges, probably because New York is filled with booby traps for the unwary newcomer.
Most of the chaos accumulates in drifts around the entrance, where hosts try cheerfully but often ineffectively to dispatch the hungry crowd to empty tables. My guests and I passed a strange half-hour at the bar during which we felt invisible for a while; then suddenly three people in a row came and promised to find us a table right away, and then they each disappeared.
Things looked up once we were led to the dining room, on the far side of an open kitchen fronted by a fully loaded meat case.
I understood why there was so much meat on display when I saw the menu: It is almost all beef, start to finish. It is also priced as if to prove that Gokce can keep up with other local beef specialists. The Ottoman steak is substantial, and $130 is not an unparalleled price for a rib-eye in New York. But some smaller steaks were each $70, about half again as much as they should be. The salads cost $25 each; mashed potatoes, like most of the other sides, were $15.
I’ll admit to feeling relief on hearing they were all out of an appetizer called “meat sushi,” but I did like the tartare, chopped and jazzed up on a tableside cart by a nice waiter named Marco. He finished the job by sprinkling salt flakes from on high, in a pale imitation of the master’s style. Poor Marco, I thought. It must be like having to open for Beyoncé when the only song you know is “Single Ladies.”
After two pleasant if unremarkable salads we were on to the “spaghetti steak,” strips of very tender seared steak gleaming with melted fat; we were encouraged to twirl the meat around our forks, like pasta.
“This is cuckoo, it’s going to melt in your mouth,” we were told, and it did. For sheer softness, though, it didn’t hold a candle to the lokum. Named after Turkish delight, this is tenderloin in thin slices that are passed over the grill just long enough to mark them. I usually prefer steak that gives me something to chew on, but I was glad to be introduced to lokum.
Yet something was missing. Or, to be exact, someone.
And then he was there, at our table. He wore a snug, white T-shirt with a thin gold chain under the scoop-neck collar. His black hair was pulled back in an abbreviated ponytail. His eyes were hidden behind round reflective sunglasses. I wonder if he ever wishes he’d worn another outfit on the day “Ottoman Steak” was filmed, but it is too late to turn back now.
The ritual of carving and salting our Ottoman steak proceeded exactly as I knew it would, although Gokce now wore a latex glove in deference to local health codes. Somebody at the table captured the whole thing on video, and the four of us took our places as nodes on the global Salt Bae network.
Oh, we ate the steak, too. It was rare in patches and medium-rare in others, but apart from that it was terrific. The mashed potatoes were awful, but then Gokce has never pretended to be Spud Bae.