Jimi Famurewa reviews Salt Bae’s steakhouse: This vibeless business lounge is categorically a bad restaurant

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·7-min read
Jimi Famurewa reviews Salt Bae’s steakhouse: This vibeless business lounge is categorically a bad restaurant
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There is an odd sort of poetry to the fact that Nusret “Salt Bae” Gökçe’s London restaurant — first threatened in 2017, before multiple postponements and a delayed opening a fortnight ago — turns out to mostly be about different forms of waiting. Outside, there’s a chance you may have to queue by the velvet rope that guards the doorway. Once you’re in, you may well be held in the chair-free bar where crowds look in on the action, waiting for tables to be readied. And then, of course, you will wait for your moment with Gökçe himself — the Turkish butcher, restaurateur and human meme whose theatrical steak presentation (immortalised in a 2017 video watched by more than 17 million people) precipitated an unstoppable, 14-site global restaurant empire and stalks the room here, turning every head like a tight-trousered apparition.

But as I now know — having visited recently and actually paid my own exorbitant bill — the one thing that won’t arrive, no matter how long you wait, will be the moment that anything at Nusr-Et Steakhouse London comes close to justifying the hype, the weirdly devoted following or those disdainfully inflated prices. Not the drab, supermarket-worthy sushi. Not the sloppy creamed spinach that (ironically enough) lacks basic seasoning. And not the £100 gold-wrapped burger that — just for sheer mick-taking chutzpah measured against taste — may genuinely be the capital’s worst.

I get the sense that the Nusr-Et team essentially views all press as good press. And I suppose you could argue, not unreasonably, that any attempt to seriously engage with something so patently unserious is ultimately futile — like offering sincere music criticism to a guy playing traffic cone didgeridoo in a doorway. But let me just say, categorically, that this is a bad restaurant; a vibeless business lounge of a room where mostly amateurish Frankie & Benny’s-level food is served at insultingly high prices. And I remember thinking, as the clarifying fury built, that if I could spare just one morbidly curious person the expense and the bother, then it will have been worth it.

The gulf between Gökçe’s masterfully constructed digital fantasy and the physical reality of Nusr-Et announced itself pretty early. Having managed to call on the day and snag a Friday night table, my mate Mark and I were whisked straight into the base of the brutalist drill bit that is the Park Tower Knightsbridge. Heralded by the thick scent of charred cow and a giant photo of Gökçe doing his signature salt-sprinkling pose, the entrance lobby wraps around from the low-lit purgatory of the bar area into a big, open-plan main room of flimsy cream curtains and gold-effect accents that evoke a conference suite at Mar-a-Lago.

 (Jimi Famurewa)
(Jimi Famurewa)

“It’s all a bit… anonymous,” Mark said, wrinkling his nose and looking around as platoons of specially-flown-in staff (god, there are a lot of staff) buzzed around. And it was hard to disagree as we were seated at what felt like an overflow table, primely positioned to acquaint ourselves with the spaceship console of an open grill-kitchen.

Let us give credit where it’s due. Despite how unexpectedly easy it was to score a reservation, the place was legitimately mobbed, with jazz-inflected funk blaring from the stereo and gesturing towards a non-existent party atmosphere. And, despite personal concerns that he might prove elusive, there, at the centre of it all, was Salt Bae, chopping steak and cascading salt down his trademark elbow luge, posing with babies like a campaigning politician and generally being the axis on which the whole surreal enterprise turns.

It is a predominantly patently wealthy crowd, with a heavy emphasis on bored-looking new parents in matching Balenciaga tops, super-rich kids that always keep one AirPod in, tanned fifty-somethings with the air of suburban hot tub owners and groups of young aspirant influencer girls in swishy dresses.

Putting the gleeful robbery of the prices to one side, the menu can be split into those pointlessly gilded items (not just an £830 version of the notorious tomahawk but a £50 cappuccino), steakhouse standbys and unsuccessful attempts to recreate the flamboyant magic of the seasoning video that set this all in motion.

Beef Carpaccio (Matt Writtle)
Beef Carpaccio (Matt Writtle)

Beef carpaccio comes as a flayed plate of eerily pink meat, scraped and folded into an unappetising carpet roll at the table with much theatrical fork-tapping, and ends up tasting mostly of shattered parmesan crisp shards. The maximal, clumsily hacked Nusr-Et special salad had the cloying quality of something finished with chopped Starmix. And though the battered edges of the striking, whole-fried onion flower were fine, the centre of it had been cut so thickly that it was still uncooked. So that is basically a raw onion, for £18. Or rather, the kind of detail that really does make you wonder if Salt Bae isn’t really some slow-burn, performance art comment on the ills of capitalism and the credulousness of the general public in the internet age.

But, look, we hadn’t yet been visited by Gökçe. And I won’t pretend that there wasn’t an authentic thrum of excitement as, after an interminable wait, with half our dishes cooling on the table and gathered servers muttering furtive messages into their earpieces like FBI agents, he swooped towards us in trademark white shirt, bow tie and dark, owlish shades.

There was a hubbub as neighbouring tables raised their smartphones and one of his in-house photographers circled. He gave me a nod, began the hip-thrust, slicing schtick, reached over to the bowl held by his weary-looking official salt bearer, craned his arm and rained pale flakes down onto our relatively modest £120 Wagyu striploin (and, I couldn’t help but notice, onto my leg). Then he speared a lobe of meat, dangled it into Mark’s mouth and was suddenly off to another table, figuratively shimmying out of the window after what had felt like a intensely suggestive, culinary one-night stand.

Golden Burger (Matt Writtle)
Golden Burger (Matt Writtle)

The steak was shockingly good — beautifully charred, capably rested and meltingly tender. But you would hope it would be for that much money. And set against the evening’s other clangers and that golden burger — a genuinely perplexing travesty of low-grade bun, grimly ectoplasmic melted cheese and a knackered onion-heaped patty — it felt like the faintest consolation.

The bill, with just one bottle of the £65 house wine, came to more £500 for two people. And I can confirm that, if you want to torture yourself in the days after visiting Nusr-Et, you should trawl the online menus at Hawksmoor (or Flat Iron or The Guinea Grill or even Gaucho) and look at what you could have won. This, I feel, is the central point with this place: to engage with it at a time when the city has never been more full of great restaurants — legitimately buzzy, pandemic-bruised and desperate for custom — feels like wasteful masochism. Not to mention that the real truth about Nusr-Et isn’t that it is captivatingly tacky, some gaudy bin fire that you can’t tear your eyes from, but rather that it is really quite boring.

Gökçe, if the recent history of his launches tells us anything, will be gone soon. Off to another town, and another hyped Nusr-Et opening, attended by the familiar cycle of intrigue and outrage. And from then on (as the many Salt Bae-less Salt Bae restaurants in other cities tell us), it will just be expensive, unexceptional food being served up by a waiter or waitress, craning their arm to perform an impression of a four-year-old meme and proving that, whichever way you slice it, this thing has gone too far.

Nusr-Et Steakhouse, The Park Tower, 101 Knightsbridge, SW1X 7EZ

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