From the year 1983 until 2016, Nusret Gökçe was … Nusret Gökçe.
Just a guy.
A guy with a talent for slicing, salting and serving steak, sure, but a guy nonetheless.
Then, in 2017, with a sprinkle of sea salt down his chiseled forearm, bouncing off his protruding elbow, Nusret Gökçe became Salt Bae.
Turning viral fame into mega-bucks isn’t new, but the gulf between his initial social media fame (a single short video) and his eye-watering wealth (a reported $50m) really is remarkable, even in the age of Kim Kardashian West.
He’s been on everyone’s lips in the UK for the past week or so, for sticking slabs of overpriced cow into the gaping maws of finance bros with juicy expense accounts and Instagrammers with even juicier overdrafts.
A food critic for London newspaper The Standard, ended up dropping £500 on dinner for two, even after limiting himself to the house red. The steak was ‘shockingly good’, but a bunch of missteps on the sides and appetizers put the eye-watering sum into sharp focus. £120 Wagyu striploins? £50 cappuccinos? Salt Bae left them feeling salty.
But listen – if you’re a Salt Bae super-fan whose bank balance is redder than a bottle of Heinz’s finest, you do have another option: Salt Bae’s fast food restaurant. It’s a place where you can soak up all of the gimmickry of Bae’s fancy big brother, at about a sixth of the cost.
The name – which we’d like to imagine was conjured up by a team of $1,000-a-day Madison Avenue advertizing execs – is ‘#Saltbae’, and it opened at the worst time possible.
That’s right, it threw open its doors in later February 2020, mere days before indoor dining was shuttered for months due to coronavirus. Nonetheless, Nusret himself made it to the restaurant for the launch, grinning and cheesing with guests as photographers’ flashbulbs popped and NYC’s Foodstagram VIPs tucked in.
So what’s it like? And should you add it to your NYC itinerary next time you’re in town? We headed down there to find out.
The first thing to happen? A flashback.
I remember when I was a kid, there was a big field, and once a year the circus would come to town. It was pretty exciting; The big top! Strongmen wandering around with cartoon biceps! The whiff of elephant dung! For a week, it’d become part of the skyline, and then once the ringmaster and co had moved on, all that was left was the sight of trampled grass and the weird feeling of wondering whether such a spectacle had even happened at all.
Which is to say that – and I’ll admit it was a misty-eyed, indulgent, nostalgia journey to get to the this point – this gave off the same vibes of a venue where the circus had very much moved on. This place was dead. We went on a Friday night, to this massive palace of burger narcissism, in the middle of New York City, and there were maybe 10 other diners out of a spot that looks like it can fit 100 or so.
But with a near 1:1 ratio of customers to employees, the service was as good as you could have expected. An attentive host, fast service, and plenty of smiles.
The chaos menu
My smile soon turned into a grimace of confusion on inspecting the chaotic menu. The Saltbae burger, with a 7oz wagyu beef patty, plus blue cheese and crispy onions is $19. Sounds fancy, right? So presumably the post-dinner baklava milkshake is, what, $10? Wrong bucko, it’s $25. Perhaps the only restaurant in NYC where the dessert is more expensive than the main.
How about a meat-free salad of tomatoes, walnuts, onions and parsley? That’s the sort of thing a half-decent Persian restaurant will put out for free alongside your order of grilled meat. But here? It’s $20. That stings more than the pomegranate vinaigrette. They’ve also got the mad $120 ‘gold burger’ covered in 24K edible gold, that sits on the main restaurant’s menu too. For the sake of indy100’s expense account, we passed.
Then there’s the issue of figuring out which burger to order. The Saltbae Burger sounds, just from the name, like the flagship burger, but right underneath is something called the ‘juicy burger’ which sounds more appealing and costs a dollar less. Then there’s a ‘saslik’ burger – tenderloin marinated with olive oil and buttermilk on a house bun – which sounds more like a steak sandwich than a burger. But there’s already a steak sandwich elsewhere on the menu, so what’s saslik offering that that doesn’t? It’s all a bit baffling.
Also, when this place first opened, they offered free veggie burgers for women – something that rightly raised eyebrows and generated column inches. That’s long gone – they’re now $16. A reaction to the backlash? Unlikely. A cost calculation made after the media circus rolled on? Probably.
Fries also used to be listed on the menu is all caps as ‘FREE’ – but it seems the Salt Bae crew has caved and acknowledged that most burgers come with fries, and they’re simply listed as a component of a typical burger combo, rather than some act of potato benevolence.
The main event
So after all of this grumbling, you’re presumably all set for a flame-grilled roast of the food. You’re not going to get it.
We asked for a Saltbae burger, medium-rare, and that’s what we got (although they slice them in half and grill the open edge before serving, so it looked like they’d cooked it well-done at first. Thankfully it was perfectly cooked).
The burger meat isn’t very finely minced which gives it great texture, a hearty bite, and keep plenty of juice inside the patty.
In terms of flavor, I’m not sure what cuts of meat are being used in the burgers but there was an almost gamey, offaly tang which we last experienced when we scoffed a burger made with 50% heart at a hipster food truck in Kings Cross, London. This is a good thing – I want my burgers to taste of something and this delivered, it just had to fight with a slightly mouth-puckering coating of salt to shine through. But it seems unfair to grumble about salt usage in a restaurant named after salt.
The blue cheese was in short supply but with a bit of investigative work, we found a splodge just hiding in the roof of the bun, along with some rather shy bits of onion.
Each plate comes with a couple of black gloves – it’s what Salt Bae himself wears when he goes from table to table dispensing salt at his new openings – which the waiter says is optional when devouring the burger. It seemed to conjure up proctologist vibes, though, so we skipped them.
The fries were nicely seasoned but were lukewarm, which meant they were mushy in parts. A shame.
A $25 milkshake
Afterwards, we finished up with the $25 baklava milkshake, shared between us. It promised vanilla creme, a pistachio rim, white chocolate sauce and baklava. It was so overpoweringly sweet that it was hard to parse the various flavors in there, and while there was a huge wedge of baklava perched on top, it was hard to tell whether any baklava had been whizzed up in the milkshake.
So what’s the damage? Well, $112 with tip. If you’re in the UK that’s about 90 quid. We had one drink each – a glass of cabernet and a small beer – and while that seems expensive, NYC is perennially pricey and the cost of dining out has gotten particularly crazy over the past few months.
Would I come back here? No. But there are only about 10 spots in the city I repeatedly return to. Would I urge you, on a trip to NYC, to avoid this place at all costs? Also no.
When I posted an Instagram story showing where I was, I got a bunch of replies, some from people I hadn’t spoken to for ages. They loved it, it sparked conversation.
This place is fine. It’s solid in fact. It’s a place where you can get a good burger, and have some fun instagramming the Salt Bae-branded trays, wrappers and decor while paying a relatively modest premium for the celebrity gimmick. Provided you skip the gold burger.