“Do you know what you’re eating?”
Curiosity had finally gotten the better of the burly man at a nearby table, who approached our party of four with a friendly smile and a question.
We were in the middle of dinner at Nusr-Et in Midtown, the newest location of the steakhouse chain owned by Turkish butcher-turned-Instagram celebrity Salt Bae that just opened last month.
And in front of us was the calling card that would summon the living meme (all of the staff wear #SaltBae pins to remind you of this) to personally #bless your table: the $275 tomahawk steak.
It is all absurd enough to merit a reality check. Our entire experience at Nusr-Et, in fact, left us asking similar versions of that question all night.
Where are we?
To properly enjoy Nusr-Et, you have to be willing to shed the prudishness that civilization has cultured in us.
While traditional steakhouses veer so far from the original fire-and-meat experience of beef that they’re almost a parody, Salt Bae has channeled the primal enjoyment of gathering around a fire (and there’s almost always something on fire near you).
Nusr-Et is the clubstaurant of steak, with thumping Turkish music, a dining room dominated by large tables and staff who appreciate the art of performance as much as their leader — but often at the expense of the product.
What is happening?
This can be fun, like roasting the “meat sushi” tableside with two blowtorches on wooden platter. But the end result ranges from a fun bite of crispy beef to an aftertaste of lighter fluid.
It can also be intensely personal: To have a bite of the very good sirloin “spaghetti,” each diner must give their fork to the waiter, who winds up a “strand” and will then feed it to those in arm’s reach.
There’s pointing the caveman-size bone at the diner most likely to take the hint and tear the last bit of short rib (dry, stringy) off with his teeth, or Salt Bae dangling a slice of steak from the tip of his wicked-looking carving knife into the mouth of a man who pumps his fist in victory.
It’s the bartender showing off to guests at the bar by balancing cocktails — or an entire pyramid of them — on his arm that are a watery mess by the time they arrive at the table.
Is the Salt Bae hype real?
With Salt Bae constantly flitting between tables, the excitement level of the restaurant is at a low-level hum all night.
Sprinkling salt is only a small part of what he (real name Nusret Gökçe) does. During our 2.5-hour dinner, he was never off the restaurant floor, posing for photos, holding babies, shaking hands. Salt Bae may have started his career as a butcher, but he seems much better suited as the majordomo of Nusr-Et.
The only time the party atmosphere abates is when Salt Bae appears at your table, ninja-like in all black and his ever-present sunglasses.
He performs his famous ritual in silence, and a complementary hush falls over the table, too, as the same act you’ve watched dozens of times online takes on new significance when it’s your meat being sliced, seasoned and presented with a flourish.
Skip taking a video that can’t capture the magic anyway and just enjoy the steak — tender with a gorgeous sear, though still rare inside — that’s worth its full price tag only while the man himself presides over it.
But while he’s there, you should gather a group of friends and splurge on an experience you’ll be dining out on for a long time.
Can this be right?
Salt Bae deserves major credit for what he’s accomplished: turning the world’s most common condiment into the centerpiece of dinner theater so compelling that people around the world know his name.
But for a man named for a seasoning, his restaurant’s food contains precious little of it.
Nothing in our arugula and artichoke salad has been roasted or seasoned before being shaved thin and barely dressed with oil — it was just a bunch of raw green confetti.
The side of mashed potatoes didn’t contain a speck of salt let alone any other flavoring, but at least we didn’t have to suffer with it much: There was exactly one tablespoon of it for each of us.
Even the lauded lokum, a house specialty described by our waiter as “real Turkish delight” and marinated in onion and soy milk, arrived overdone and tasting of nothing at all.
Or perhaps we were meant to work our own sprinkle magic: Besides the theatrical bowl of salt, each table is provided with a bowl oregano, which we never did figure out what to do with.
To answer your question…
Our curious new friend from the next table over turned out to be Eric Siegfried, VP of sales at the National Beef Packing Company with $8 billion of business annually. One of his (many) dining companions was New York’s go-to burger man, Pat LaFrieda. He was not looking for an explanation of the tomahawk steak when he asked, “Do you know what you’re eating?”
“This is an old person’s steak,” he continued. “We have to figure out how to get young people to eat this.”
Yes, even in our vegan-trending world where veggie burgers are hogging all the headlines, a celebrity chef will still get avocado toast-loving millennials through the doors of a steakhouse. But theatrics and one good piece of meat will only sustain Nusr-Et as long as Salt Bae is in residence — and that won’t be forever, so everyone else better figure out their own seasoning magic, too.
Nusr-Et is located at 60 W. 53rd St. in Midtown Manhattan, open daily from noon to midnight.