A Sprinkle, a Snapshot, a Sensation: My Dinner With Salt Bae

A Sprinkle, a Snapshot, a Sensation: My Dinner With Salt Bae

Because Mr. Gokce has been doing this since 2002, the new restaurant, which opened three weeks ago, 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 because he is now doing it in New York, a city 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. One of my guests was late so I can’t blame the restaurant for not seating us right away, but once we were all there we passed a strange half-hour at the bar. 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. For a long time the only thing that happened was that the bartender couldn’t find the credit card I’d handed over when we’d arrived.

When it finally turned up inside a server’s apron, I paid for two rounds of drinks for four people. This came to around $180, including a mandatory 18 percent service charge. This, sadly, is not far from the going rate for cocktails that are made painstakingly, but these weren’t. The house old-fashioned, reportedly made with ginger syrup and Scotch, tasted like rye, sugar and water. Smoked Negronis, poured from a smoke-filled wine decanter, tasted as if they’d been burned.

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. In Turkey, Mr. Gokce gets his beef from a dedicated ranch. In Manhattan, like everybody else, he buys from Pat LaFrieda, supplemented by cuts from Master Purveyors in the Bronx.

Photo

The Ottoman steak at Nusr-Et steakhouse, made famous by an Instagram post

Credit
Cole Wilson for The New York Times

I understood why there was so much meat on display when I saw the menu: It is almost all beef, start to finish. 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.

Then we shared a cheeseburger, cut into quarters, and drippingly full of flavor. It would have been better on a fresher roll; it could have done without the potato sticks. The meat was hard to argue with, though.

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. It is too late to turn back now. Without the scoop neck and the mirrored shades there is no Salt Bae, and Salt Bae was what everybody in the room had come to see.

Photo

Nusr-Et’s baklava, served with chewy Turkish-style ice cream, is the only dessert on the menu. It does not need salt.

Credit
Cole Wilson for The New York Times

The ritual of carving and salting our Ottoman steak proceeded exactly as I knew it would. No surprises, no speeches, no slips, although he did wear a latex glove in deference to local health codes. Mr. Gokce has only one move, but he performs it with total confidence, and as anybody who’s ever been on a dance floor knows, that’s enough. 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 Mr. Gokce has never pretended to be Spud Bae.

Much as I enjoyed meeting an obliging human meme, I was distracted by unwelcome thoughts all night. The most annoying one was money. The Ottoman steak is substantial, and $130 is not an unparalleled price for a rib-eye in New York. But the spaghetti steak and the lokum were each $70 for what I’d guess was about eight ounces of beef. The salads, a giant step down in appeal, cost $25 each; the clump of potatoes, like most of the other sides, was $15.

One day, the prices will stay behind while Mr. Gokce leaves New York to salt other steaks and other laps. Without him, the dining room will be even stranger than it is now.

Dessert is the only course that suggests Mr. Gokce’s homeland. There is only one sweet, an imported baklava baked in a round pan and sliced like pizza. Served in wedges, it is much better on its own than with a bland layer of stretchy Turkish ice cream sandwiched inside. With it, you can have a cup of Turkish coffee.

I like my Turkish coffee stronger and thicker, but the real missed opportunity here was that it had already been sweetened. Surely the moment calls for Sugar Bae.

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