You know, I experienced a lot of terrible things during my years as a restaurant critic. A mackerel dressed with rhubarb syrup. Stew made with choice cuts of bear. Jeremy Clarkson eating a dumpling.
Yet few sights can compare with the obscenity of a chargrilled tomahawk steak wrapped in 24-carat gold-leaf and priced at more than £700. This is the house speciality at the newly opened Nusr-Et Steakhouse in London, where prices start in the volcanic foothills of expensive and escalate into an eruption of gold-plated, meat-based excess.
Surely, you might think, no one in their right mind would order such a thing? Yet the table next to me has just ordered two, which arrive sizzling on wooden platters, meat bullion for the deep of pocket and jaded of appetite.
Elsewhere in the packed restaurant, diners are tucking into other Nusr-Et specialities such as ‘meat spaghetti’ — thin strips of steak wound around a fork and eaten like pasta — or slices of striploin cooked tableside by pouring a bubbling cauldron of hot butter over them.
It’s a scene, it’s wild, it’s a carnival for rich carnivores who don’t mind paying £100 for a gold-leaf hamburger or £9 for a Coca-Cola to wash it down. And, amazingly, just a few days after the restaurant opened in Knightsbridge, there is no shortage of takers.
On Saturday lunchtime the joint is jumping, the state-of-the-art charcoal grills are sizzling — but the hottest thing in the place has to be owner Nusret Gökçe himself, who creates ripples of excitement every time he appears on the floor.
On Saturday lunchtime the joint is jumping, the state-of-the-art charcoal grills are sizzling — but the hottest thing in the place has to be owner Nusret Gökçe (pictured in 2017) himself, who creates ripples of excitement every time he appears on the floor
Today the 38-year-old is wearing a snazzy bow tie along with his customary gold-rimmed sunglasses and has his hair tied up in a man-bun. Small and muscular, he is as compact as an acrobat and one suspects he revels in his passing resemblance to Johnny Depp. ‘I’m not a movie star but I still get my photograph taken when I walk down the street, hundreds of times,’ he said recently. ‘I never say no.’
Until 2017, Nusret was just another Turkish butcher-turned-chef, a man who was well known in the Middle East for his upscale grill restaurants and his steak-slicing flamboyance, but little known elsewhere.
Then a meme of him preparing and seasoning meat in his trademark ‘sensual’ manner became an internet sensation. Now he has 38 million followers on Instagram and is worth millions. ‘Wow!’ is his catchphrase. Hardly original, but like the thick mustard glaze on some of his steaks, it sticks.
On screen and in the flesh, Nusret fondles and slaps meat, chops it up with the precision of a surgeon and then, in the piece de resistance, sprinkles it with salt in a manner that has gone viral.
With his arm bent back like a swan’s neck, he lets the crystals bounce off his muscled forearm and onto the steak. ‘I wanted it to look like salt was coming from the sky. It was my golden touch,’ he says. Today he is known as the ‘Meat King’ and also the ‘Sexiest Butcher in the World’, although the competition for the latter was not fierce.
What is going on? In the olden days, chefs needed a TV series or a book — or at least a fabulous recipe — to become famous. But all it took Nusret was 37 seconds of salty theatrics to secure his fame and fortune.
Now he has the nickname Salt Bae, a 17-strong chain of restaurants around the globe and has become a brand. Rihanna wears a T-shirt bearing his image, David Beckham and Lionel Messi are fans, boxer Conor McGregor was fed an £800 gold steak in the Nusr-Et in Dubai, while actor Jason Statham visits the Beverly Hills branch. Nusret claims that keen customer Leonardo DiCaprio said his steak was ‘the best meat he ever had in his life’.
The London restaurant is the newest outpost, its opening delayed because of Covid. Here each table is set with Nusr-Et branded cutlery and, alarmingly, a pair of steel forceps. Despite what Leo says, I’m not very impressed with my first course, a steak tartare (£40) served on a wooden board adorned with artful smears of mustard and tomato ketchup.
Instead of the usual hand-chopped steak, this tartare looks like some sort of hellish meat jam, with the texture of mashed lipstick. Despite the enlivening addition of capers and seasoning, it tastes of absolutely nothing.
But never mind that, Salt Bae is among us! Nusret moves through the restaurant in a regal procession, flanked by his two in-house photographers (I kid you not) and followed by his salt carrier, whose job is to transport a bowl of salt crystals behind the master, like Balthazar bearing myrrh.
Nusret knows what is expected of him. At each table he slips on a fresh pair of black latex gloves and saws into the steaks with speed and skill, despite the shades.
He camps it up, swaying his hips suggestively, using the tip of his knife to drop slices of meat into his customers’ throats, like a sparrow feeding her nestlings.
On his wrist is a diamond-encrusted Patek Philippe watch, but he uses his favourite everyday F. Dick Breaking Knife with a blue plastic handle to cut the meat. At £17 it’s the probably the most inexpensive thing in the room, certainly cheaper than the house salad, which is £23.
Few sights can compare with the obscenity of a chargrilled tomahawk steak wrapped in 24-carat gold-leaf and priced at more than £700. This is the house speciality at the newly opened Nusr-Et Steakhouse in London, where prices start in the volcanic foothills of expensive and escalate into an eruption of gold-plated, meat-based excess
As he does his rounds, I notice he is not without a sense of humour, batting away the gruff embarrassment of a burly Russian man who doesn’t wish to be hand-fed steak like a baby. ‘No,’ says the Salt Bae. ‘I insist.’ He is sweet with kids, he is nice to the laydeez and yikes, he is heading my way. Am I ready for my audience with the Meat God? It’s now or never.
‘Make sure she gets a nice video,’ he says, handing my phone to the waiter before attacking our meat order on the table.
He slices through the £120 sirloin steak with the elan of someone who served a butcher’s apprenticeship in the back streets of Istanbul, starting at an age when he had to stand on a box to reach the counter. He then slices the £100 Golden Burger, lifts up a half, then squeezes it until the grease runs out. He does the same with the other half, looks me straight in the eye and, in a low and throaty voice, says ‘WOW!’.
He showers the whole table with a blizzard of salt, then, with the practised ease of an Insta star, moves in close for a selfie, patting my arm, rubbing my back. He smells lovely, much more meadow-fresh than the Air du Abattoir I had been expecting.
What is the secret of your success, I ask him, thinking that ‘nine quid for a Coke’ or ‘the 15 per cent service charge’ would be accurate answers. Instead, he is momentarily stumped.
‘Let me have a think about that,’ he says, and glides off to do some more sexy slicing, as macho as a man with his own condiments range can be.
His salts include Aegean Sea Salt, Smoked Salt and, confusingly, Black Pepper Salt, but before I can ponder the mysteries of that, he’s back.
‘My secret of success is that I work 20 hours every day,’ he says. But does it translate onto the plate? It’s a pretty decent burger, made with his secret blend of meat, but it’s nothing special. I remember Daniel Boulud’s Royale burger, served at DB Bistro Moderne in New York, being superior.
The steak is fine but the overriding flavour is the salt. The only thing that makes all this special is the tasteless and odourless gold- leaf. To eat a Golden Burger is to sit under a shame cloud and just hope it clears away soon.
But who is this international man of meat mystery? Rumours about Nusret abound. He smokes cigars, he travels on private jets, he eats six egg whites for breakfast. He has nine children. No, he has 13! A miner’s son from eastern Turkey, he clawed his way out of poverty into a world of salty glamour and steaks paved with gold.
It is all thanks to him that the east end of Knightsbridge now smells like a delicious barbecue, and customers queue outside his restaurant. How has he done it? By escalating meat into a luxury ‘experience’ for which people will pay over the odds, by ‘bringing butchery to another level’ and by turning a steak dinner into what he hopes is an erotic experience.
So if your idea of sexy is a Depp-alike charmer in black plastic gloves, wielding a Dick knife and squeezing the juice out of your buns, then baby, you are in luck.
Nusr-Et. The Park Tower Hotel, London SW1.