When a restaurateur-turned-meme lands in New York City, selfies abound and salt flies like confetti. But nobody is here for the food.
Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his
savour, wherewith shall it be salted?
— Matthew 5:13
The bar at Nusr-Et, midtown Manhattan’s newest steakhouse, feels like a very glamorous waiting room at a government office. The space is cavernous and clattering. A row of Himalayan salt lamps casts a glow; custom neon lights, in the shape of meat hooks, hang from a suspended rail. It is 10 P.M. and I am still waiting on an 8:30 reservation. Behind a hostess stand, two women in suits clutch iPads like shields while fielding increasingly strident complaints from men used to getting their way in the world. Most of these men wear expensive blazers under which their white shirts have long given up closing fully about their necks. Others wear Supreme sweatshirts. I ask one gentleman who makes his shoes, a nice pair of black-and-white Chelsea boots: “Labou-teen” he says. His friend chimes in, “They make them for men, too.” Many of these fellows are short and accompanied by women who are tall and, by all accounts, very pretty. Two women, sporting intricate braids, arrive with a stroller containing a very much awake child bundled against the cold. Money sweats from these folks, from their earbuds and watches, hair gel, socks, diamond necklaces, and cologne. Yet at Nusr-et it does not matter who is wealthy and who is poor, who has a reservation and who has just walked in. We are all equal under the benevolent gaze of Salt Bae, the restaurant’s chef-owner, who peers from his own twenty foot high tapestry on the wall.
For those of you who exist in a meme-less world, a brief explanation: Salt Bae (a.k.a. Nusret Gökçe) became internet famous last year, when he posted a 36-second Instagram of himself cutting and then sprinkling salt on a large piece of meat in what appears to be a backyard somewhere in the Levant. Even for meme skeptics like me, the video is so startlingly beautiful that it rouses the ancient aesthetic angels. It is the modern-day David.
Like David, Gökçe is indisputably handsome. He’s a stocky fellow, with the solid physique of a bodybuilder, and olive skin. One can’t help but notice the pleasing outline of his clavicle revealed by the deep white V-neck t-shirt he wears in the video, or the alluring curvature of his biceps as they emerge from his sleeves. His hair, long and jet-black, is lustrous; his goatee is well-kempt and his eyebrows, emerging from a pair of small, round sunglasses, arc over his brow like the wings of a majestic eagle. But he did not get famous, hot convict-style, for his looks alone. At the time the video published, Gökçe was already a seasoned restaurateur; what launched him into international fame was a small but powerful gesture.Grabbing a pinch of flaky salt from a small bowl, Nusret cocks back his forearm, bent at the elbow and wrist until his hand is eye-level. On others, one might say the arm is goose-like but his arm is most definitely a swan, a muscular swan. As he rubs his fingers together, the pieces of salt fall down gently, caroming off his shapely forearm until the grains, willy nilly, find their way onto the meat below. One can’t tell if it is in slow motion, if it is going forward or going backwards. And that is, I think, the appeal. It is a moment of purified crystalline beauty, a moment that has been viewed 16 million times, a moment so alluring it has brought a small, though not insignificant, number of those viewers here, smartphones bearing witness, as they prepare to spend hundreds of dollars in Midtown Manhattan. They have come for the Salt Bae’s benediction. They yearn to see the sprinkle and shake the hand from which it comes.
While waiting, we order cocktails from a bartender who wears a pebbled leather apron and makes his drinks reading from a crumpled up piece of lined notebook paper. Next to him behind the bar, a young hotshot who looks like Adam Scott with a bouffant twirls his cocktail shakers like he’s at TGI Fridays until one clatters noisily onto the ground and he, abashed, returns to pedestrian shaking. Some of the cocktails are not terrible. An Old Fashioned is just that and fine. But some are shockingly bad. An erstwhile Negroni is some rabid ruby syrup brought in the bottom of a decanter that is filled with a white smoke. I’ve had infusions before—usually spruce or some shit—but this smoke seems to have been gathered from a pile of burning tires. A sparkling millennial pink paloma tastes like a liquified and carbonated Rainbow Dash figurine. The only good news about the $24 Saz-arak, a Sazerac with Arak, is that so little of it is poured, no more than a quarter inch in a cut glass tumbler, the drink is gone before one can be overpowered by the strongly-flavored liquor. Atop the bar, cauldrons of liquid nitrogen periodically appear which causes great excitement. “It’s getting Harry Potter up in this bitch,” says the man next to me, taking out his phone to snap a picture.
There is nothing to do but drink and wait. Despite pockets of discontent, the vibe is celebratory and it is easy to fall into patter with one's compatriots, compressed as they are like sardines on the C train at rush hour. The three guys next to me are here because one of them saw Salt Bae on Diddy’s Insta feed. “If Diddy likes it,” he tells me, “it’s good enough for me.” Next to them, another couple—she from Queens, he from New Jersey—were similarly sucked into the sales funnel by Instagram. “I think it’s ridiculous,” said the man, “I’ve never come to a restaurant because of Instagram.” “But it’s Salt Bae,” said the woman, to which the man nods gravely. Those ladies with the braids with the three-year-old in tow are a pair of sisters from Istanbul where they’ve often eaten at Nusret’s steakhouses. But it is Anabelle, the girl’s, first time. Her eyes are as wide as a Pontormo as she stares into the chaos.
At some point, maybe an hour in, I yearn to pee and to explore my surroundings. I break away from the crowd and venture into the restaurant. The space itself is large and divided into a front dining room and a back. In between is a corridor with a large open kitchen on one side, meat and tables on the other. Inside a long glass case, meat is in fleshy display. The steaks are pleasingly thick and marbled. Some are coated in a beige mustard sauce. There are racks of lambs, beautifully boned, and crowned. Amongst the tomahawk chops an artichoke is artfully nestled. The men’s bathroom is downstairs and in it hangs a large framed picture from The Godfather. One urinates under the benevolent gaze of Marlon Brando.
That the restaurant of Salt Bae does not serve tap water is perhaps the only thing you need to know to understand everything about it.
On my way back to the front, I run into Salt Bae himself in the back dining room. Wee yet powerful, he is most certainly serene. His eyes are hidden under a pair of dark John Lennon sunglasses. In his hand he carries a long knife. I am taken by surprise and react instinctively. I nod to my phone, already in my hand, and raise my eyebrows, as if asking permission. No words are exchanged but Salt Bae knows what to do. He comes by my side and points to the camera. In the resultant selfie, my delighted face and his impassive one seem to rise above a massive hand in the foreground.
I return to the masses at the bar. The adrenaline eventually fades, replaced by alternate moods of rage, despair and hope. At some point, my dining companion and I are led to our table. Once seated, our waiter, a man in a vest bearing a lapel pin of Salt Bae welcomes us. “Would you like sparkling or still?” he asks, with a thick Turkish accent. “Tap’s fine,” I say, well prepared for this vaguely manipulative back-and-forth. “We don’t serve tap water,” he tells me. From my ashen face he can tell I am not pleased. “Though I do know,” he says, by way of apology, “It is very good.” That the restaurant of Salt Bae does not serve tap water is perhaps the only thing you need to know to understand everything about it.
The menu at Nusr-et is limited and absurdly expensive, even by New York City steakhouse standards. There’s a leafy salad for $25. The steaks, meanwhile, cost between $70, for boneless strips of tenderloin, and $275, for a wagyu Tomahawk. (The other Nusr-ets, of which there are nine, are similarly pricey.) Surmising that one must purchase a steak for Salt Bae to make an appearance tableside, we opt for the $130 Ottoman steak, a steak slathered in mustard. “Have you seen the Wagyu?” asks the waiter, pointing to the menu. Yes, I reply, and it’s $275. “Let me explain the difference...” he begins. Motherfucker, I think, I’m not going to pay for water, no matter how thirsty I get, you think I’m going to drop $275 on steak? I politely demur. The man is, after all, just doing his job. He, like us, is operating rationally and, judging from the steaks on the tables around us, the upsell has been effective.
When the Salt Bae arrives, it is like death
As we wait for the arrival of Salt Bae, marble topped wooden guerdons roll about the dining room, pushed by what appear to be freelance waiters. From the carts, one can order beef tartare and something called meat sushi. Meat sushi is raw meat which is cooked tableside using what looks like a flame thrower. Not only does this seem to emphatically not be sushi but it also seems like it could easily burn hair. We opt for the tartare. Our tartarist is a Turk named Arkhan who arrived in the United States from Istanbul eight months ago and lives in Bay Ridge. He places a teapot of herbs on the table into which he pours liquid nitrogen. “For the flavor,” he explains. Then he pulls from a hidden compartment a chunk of meat wrapped in saran wrap the size of a baby’s fist and begins the show. To me what makes a tartare so lovely are the chunks of meat therein. But Arkhan belongs to a different school altogether -- the kibbe school -- and as I look on with increasing anxiety, he cuts and recuts the meat until it resembles raspberry preserves. From a series of small bowls, Arkhan selects capers, mustard, onion, ketchup, and Worcester sauce. Into the meat jam it goes. He proudly places the tartare on the table, mini-saltbae-ing a smattering of potato chips atop it, and wheels away into the din.
When the Salt Bae arrives it is like death. One knows one must die and yet the moment it comes is still surprising. Even though I had seen him earlier, on my way to the bathroom, the frisson of excitement at his appearance was jolting. His looks are just as striking in real life as they are on social media. His face, perfectly symmetrical, remains completely impassive. It was 11:30 P.M. when he arrived at our table and he was still wearing those sunglasses.
Upon seeing Salt Bae, the first impulse one has is to reach for one’s phone. Salt Bae, knowing this, gamely waits a few moments in silence, for screens to be unlocked and cameras aimed before beginning his performance. Salt Bae does not talk. Salt Bae picks up your steak and twirls it half a rotation. Salt Bae squats slightly and, holding the steak at an angle, raises his large knife into the air. Salt Bae cuts with steak from the bone then the meat from the meat. He cuts with his whole body. With every slice he demi-pliés and his knife moves in graceful parabolas through the air when it is not cutting.. Salt Bae has done this many times. He will do this hundreds of times this night alone. The performance is both real and a reproduction. Salt Bae knows he is being held to the standard of his own 36-second video and its millions of views. He is a real-life meme, and he knows what we want.
Finally the moment of the salting arrives. One sits, craned back slightly, to better gaze at the man through the phone by which he had initially come into view as a video. He beckons to an assistant who proffers forth a small bowl full of salt. He grabs the salt between his fingers and rubs his fingers together. Just like that, you are in the shower of his salt. As the crystals fall, they bounce against his forearm onto the meat, onto the table, onto you. You can’t help but smile; Salt Bae doesn’t. Instead, he walks away, raising one fist in silent salute. As he leaves, he pats you on the shoulder, and you feel the salt shake forth from his arm onto you.
Is the steak transcendent? No, the steak is mundane, somewhat tough and rather bland. The hamburger is overcooked. The tartare is over-chopped. The cocktails are terrible and the water—which we ended up buying—is $9 and does little to quench our thirst. Does that matter? It does not matter. One does not visit Salt Bae for steak alone any more than one goes to Mass for the wafers. One visits Salt Bae like one kisses the Torah as it passes or touches the barnacled-skin of blue whale in the water as it drifts by: to connect to the infinite. One visits Salt Bae to see for oneself that that the mythic creatures of the internet also walk among us, that the endlessly replicating realm of memes can include us, too. In a world where nebulous social media influencers get paid thousands of dollars for a post, is it really absurd to pay a mere $500 for Salt Bae to slip into our feed? No, it is human. And humans are idiots.
Once, restaurants were famous for their food and chefs were celebrities because they were good at cooking (and maybe good-looking). To restaurants we went to be nourished and amazed by what came out of the kitchen and into our mouths. Maybe we got a glimpse of the famous chef in the kitchen, or passing through the dining room to pay a visit to his regulars. But as Salt Bae knows, we aren’t there for the meat. All flesh become worms, but celebrity live longer, and a geotag forever. We approach this glistering Midtown temple of meat in the hope that some of Gökçe’s immortality might land on us, or at least our Instagram accounts. Drunk on overpriced cocktails and overpriced dreams, we wait for our names to be called. But promises of immortality are like $130 steaks. They must be taken with a grain of salt.