A Cuban-American, a Nuyorican and an Anglo walk into Salt Bae’s new place in Miami …
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Surely you’ve heard something about Nusr-Et, the steakhouse made famous by its Turkish butcher-owner Nusret Gökçe.
Nicknamed “Salt Bae,” the ponytailed Gökçe has racked up almost 12 million Instagram followers with a salt-sprinkling wrist flick that has become the most mimicked culinary interjection since Emeril Lagasse yelled, “Bam!”
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Imitated and admired by such celebs as DJ Khaled, Justin Bieber, Drake and Rihanna, he oversees a reported $1.5 billion empire of 11 swank, meat-centric restaurants throughout the Middle East. In November, he opened his first American spot inside the former Coya Miami space in Brickell.
Not familiar with Salt Bae’s saline swagger? Perhaps you heard about his catastrophic Miami misstep a few months ago, when a year-old photo came to light of a cigar-toting Gökçe paying homage to Fidel Castro just days after the despised dictator’s death. Now removed from Instagram, the shared post drew almost 2,000 mostly-irate comments from Cuban-Americans vowing never to eat at the 250-seat restaurant.
My two friends and I bucked the sentiment to see if Miami’s Nusr-Et could overcome its owner’s blunder. We had a lot of questions: Does Salt Bae live up to the hype? Will he ever take off his sunglasses? Can we keep our visit a secret from my girlfriend’s father in Hialeah?
Unfortunately, the joke was on us. Salt Bae was nowhere in sight. (He was busy opening another restaurant in New York, where threat of a health department violation forced him to don black gloves and the New York Post quickly labeled his Midtown Manhattan spot, “Public Rip-Off No. 1.”) We were left with salty stand-ins, watered-down cocktails and a breathtaking bill.
Our beef was not with the quality of the meat. Meant to be served family-style, cuts of steak are billed by the number of people they serve, not their weight. Most are wet-aged Wagyu, not as flavorful as dry-aged, but well marbled with fat and sporting a caramelized char outside a warm red center. You will not be asked how you like your steak cooked, so be prepared for medium-rare unless you insist otherwise.
Our mustard-marinated, bone-in ribeye was perfectly fine. Yet the end of the meal left us feeling oddly like a two-hour bender on social media: oversaturated and regretting the investment.
The evening started with loud music and no bread. As we were seated at a teak table on the lovely, raised front porch, a disco version of Tina Turner blared from the speakers in a failed attempt to cover the roar of aircraft from Miami International Airport’s flight path overhead. The table was bare except for big bowls of salt and pepper.
Through the front metal doors, designed to look like the entrance to a meat locker, the inside of Nusr-Et is dark and cavernous. Dominating one corner is a beautiful bar, backed by tall, mirrored shelves, with a chandelier dangling overhead. A window display of raw beef overlooks the dining room. In case you forget you are in Miami, there’s a giant photograph of Michelle Pfeiffer from “Scarface” hanging in the women’s bathroom.
There was no sign of Salt Bae on my two visits over two months. Selfie seekers will most likely have to resign themselves to photo shoots in front of a brick wall that bears a black-and-white painting of Gökçe, dressed in his trademark white T-shirt and sunglasses in his Salt Bae pose. Solemn waiters in pinstripe vests, thin black ties and newsboy caps are trained to mimic the salt sprinkle if you want to settle for sloppy seconds.
The two-page, glossy menu is headed by three hashtags — #saltbae, #salt and #saltlife — and devoted almost entirely to beef. Three of the eight salads and starters sport meat. There are five raw and shellfish dishes, including oysters and salmon crudo, but 13 meat entrees dominate the offerings, topping out at a $275 char-grilled Tomahawk. The menu is a la carte, with pricey vegetable side dishes such as spaghetti squash, fries, creamy spinach and an “onion flower” that looks and tastes suspiciously like Outback’s Bloomin’ Onion.
The tasty beef carpaccio is a salty, crunchy starter that comes with a theatrical production, featuring a waiter pounding Parmesan crackers and arugula into damp slices of meat. With superfluous hand swirls, the server rolls up the meat, spreads mustard on top and generously squirts on balsamic vinegar before slicing the sushi-like roll into equitable portions for the table.
Even the shaved raw asparagus and artichoke salad – bracingly tart and soaked in lemon vinaigrette – is ceremoniously tossed tableside.
But the real show stars beef. Remember how thrilled your kids used to get when the waiters at Johnny Rockets danced between the tables? Eating at Nusr-Et is like the adult version of that, but the servers perform with sharp knives and you pay a lot more.
Diners will miss the action by ordering the $30 burger, Nusr-Et’s version of the cheap seats, but for a $120 “Ottoman Steak” that easily feeds two to three mouths, a server in a leather apron will pull on ominous black rubber gloves, whip out a 12-inch blade and chop the ribeye into half-inch slices in a blur of Dexter-like knife skills right before your very eyes.
For the finale, the waiter will grab a three-fingered pinch of Maldon sea salt and imitate Salt Bae’s sprinkle, dramatically holding the pose long enough for eaters to fumble for their phones and snap a few shots. Raising his arm and confidently curving his wrist, he will sensually release the wispy slivers in a flutter down his naked forearm onto the cut beef, leaving delicate flakes all over the table like fairy dust. Or dandruff.
Roasted asado short ribs for two is almost as entertaining. After slicing the individual ribs, a server resembling Borat twists each bone free of the tender meat with a flourish then pulls the slices apart into edible strips, leaving a mound of flesh on a cutting board in the middle of the table. Punchline not included (unless you count the 18 percent tip automatically included in the tab).
You may not want to ponder dessert after all that. Fortunately, there is only one choice. Baklava is presented on a large pie platter and cut to order into individual wedges, with thick pistachio ice cream wedged in the middle. Flaky and deliciously rich, it’s one of the few Turkish touches to the menu.
It wasn’t enough to entice me back. Without Salt Bae on site, Nusr-Et is just another steakhouse (and a very expensive Instagram photo). It will take more than a viral flick of the wrist for it to survive in this town.
Follow Jodi Mailander Farrell on Twitter: @JodiMailander.
Critics dine unannounced at Miami Herald expense. For the latest restaurant inspection reports, visit dine.miami.com.
IF YOU GO
Place: Nusr-Et Steakhouse
Address: 999 Brickell Ave., Miami (Brickell neighborhood)
Rating: 2 stars (OK)
Contact: 305-415-9990, http://www.nusret.com.tr/en/home.aspx
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-midnight daily
Prices: $20-$45 starters, $30-$275 entrees, $12-$15 side dishes, $20 dessert
FYI: VS, MC, AmEx; full bar; valet parking, $10
What the Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1 1/2 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2 1/2 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3 1/2 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)