In spite of logic that only restaurants serving good food survive, meme-turned-restaurateur Salt Bae — aka butcher Nusret Gökçe — has opened a second restaurant in New York, a follow-up to his widely panned steakhouse. The new casual sit-down burger spot near Union Square has already drawn ire for its absurd menu, which sells a $99 milkshake and offers veggie burgers for free only to women as an, ahem, “compliment,” according to the manager.
Eater critics Robert Sietsema and Ryan Sutton took one for the team and visited the new restaurant at 220 Park Avenue South, part of the butcher’s larger international chain of businesses, to see how things fare so far. The 65-seat spot was #SaltBae-branding heavy, the bill of fare was lean, and — spoiler alert — the burgers left something to be desired. See their first impressions, in conversation, below.
Sietsema: I was disappointed. I expected it to be as interesting as Salt Bae’s steakhouse was when it opened two years ago, but it wasn’t. It had all the charm of an airplane hangar. It was brightly lit, the seating was not nearly as comfortable, and there were just not as many interesting things going on on the menu. I hated the steakhouse, but it was interesting to go to, especially with Salt Bae there bouncing the salt off of his elbow in the meme of the year. There’s no such focus at the new place. Salt Bae was definitely not in the house.
Sutton: I thought it was mostly terrible. Basically the whole place is like a combination of Black Tap, the Insta-thirsty burger and shake spot, and Don Wagyu, the absurdly priced sandwich spot where the signature sandwich costs $180. At Salt Bae, you have these elaborate and expensive shakes — $99 for a “golden shake” — and then you have these crazy, high-priced burgers, also up to $100. But Black Tap actually serves pretty decent burgers and regular shakes, so Salt Bae is like the worst, most ‘grammable parts of Black Tap viewed through the lens of the Don Wagyu oligarchs of the world. I don’t know why anyone would want that.
Sietsema: Really, there are only four burger options there that you would be likely to buy, and we had a hell of a time distinguishing between them. Even the vaunted wagyu burger didn’t taste that different from the other burgers. There was low minerality to the beef. It tasted like someone had passed a bottle of Worcestershire sauce over it — there was something oddly salty to it. What was that one called Ryan?
Sutton: I don’t know. I looked at the menu for 20 minutes today, and couldn’t tell which one was which that we ordered.
Sietsema: Even the waiters didn’t seem to know. And none of these burgers had any vegetable matter whatsoever, except three of them had caramelized onions that tasted like they were pulled out of a 60-gallon drum. They were too sweet. The burgers also had what they called cheddar cheese, but it had no age. It might as well have been Velveeta.
But at $9.95 for a “wet burger” and $9.99 for an “easy burger,” these are good deals because they come with french fries. The easy one read like a fast food burger and was more memorable.
Sutton: The only one that tasted truly distinctive was that wet burger. It’s a classic late night Istanbul treat that I’ve never encountered in New York — a Turkish colleague was just telling me they’re quite rare here. I’d never had one before, but it tastes precisely how most recipes read: A nicely spiced meat patty, maybe a bit like kofte, with garlic and paprika a tomato-y sauce. If I were in the neighborhood and needed a quick lunch, I would totally pick that up.
As for the rest of the burgers, I’ll also disagree with you on the onions. They were great, but they were the only good thing about the burgers. The wagyu burger ($22.95) not only did not taste like wagyu, it did not taste like beef. It had the texture of a hot dog and the flavor of liquid smoke and a gas grill. It had none of the other characteristics of beef except juiciness. The prime beef burger (“juicy burger,” $18.95) had the same weird juicy, spongy construction. There was no beef flavor. In the book Steak by Mark Schatzker, he describes mediocre beef as tasting like “textured salt water.” That’s what these burgers tasted like.
Sietsema: But do not under any circumstances pay for the truffle fries for $6.95. They taste about the same as the regular fries. These are middling fries.
Sutton: Yes, they’re in a weird middle ground — not quite mealy, not quite fluffy and crisp. On the truffle fries, I’ll disagree with you: I would argue they’re noxious. The state of “faux” truffle has improved somewhat in the last decade. Truffle fries in the aughts would stink your table with the awful designer impostor perfume of fake truffles, and that’s what these tasted like.
Sietsema: What this place is really about is price point. As we saw, a boy behind us ordered the gold leaf milkshake, which is [ed: He checks the menu again] — oh my god! It’s $99. What ridiculously indulgent parents. Do they know it’s going to come out in the poop?
Sutton: The restaurant is doing what’s called price anchoring. They’re using this $100 milkshake to make their other milkshake prices seem less absurd. All their shakes are expensive, they’re all stunt shakes. And they’re awful, the ones we tried. The baklava shake is $25, and the waiter was absolutely insistent that this is what we should order with our burgers, as if this was the most scientific and thought-out drink pairing on the menu.
Sietsema: The Oreo shake was just festooned with chocolate things, not only Oreo cookies but chocolate rolled pastries and Pocky sticks. Then inside, in the rotten core of the milkshake, you could suck it up as easy as a glass of water. If there was ice cream in there, there was almost none.
Sutton: When one thinks of a fast food milkshake, some people want thinner and some people want thicker. But you at least want it to be cold and have some trace of ice cream. This was like drinking milk with a tiny bit of sugar — with a whole bunch of cloying stuff on top.
Sietsema: They were intended for Instagram and nothing else. Lots of the content on Oreo was frosting spread on the glass itself. Not only could you not pick it up, there was no way to eat it.
Sutton: It was in the vein of a Black Tap Instagram shake, meant to be ‘grammed and observed. That said, I went to Black Tap today to try its Oreo shake for comparison, and it was much better. Listen, a Black Tap milkshake, if you try to suck it through a straw, you’ll give yourself an aneurysm. It was like eating Oreo ice cream. I wouldn’t recommend it, but if you go wait at Black Tap for an hour, you’re going to get a decent shake and a decent burger. You get neither at Salt Bae. And you’ll pay more.
Sietsema: We did try to get the vegetarian burger, which doesn’t have a price on the menu. It says it’s given free for “ladies.” Our colleague Erika Adams was told by the general manager that men could still get it for free if they ask.
Sutton: It did not work out for us. Not only did the waiter not let us have it for free, he waved it off and said we shouldn’t order it, but if we did, it would be $15.
Sietsema: I think they’re cynically trying to cash in on the Salt Bae brand. Despite the high prices of the steakhouse, they probably can’t replicate its success the way that they would like. I think the burger restaurant is an attempt to create the highest profit margins they possibly can by having food that takes no effort to prepare, that’s indistinguishable from one burger to another.
Sutton: They probably went to Black Tap, saw the line stretching down the block, and said, “We’re Salt Bae. We’re a huge international brand, we can get some of that bread, too.” Every table had black gloves, which are the gloves that Salt Bae started to use himself to sprinkle salt after the Department of Health in New York said touching the food directly was against the rules.
Sietsema: But very few people were putting them on. The child with the gold shake was doing it. It was the only interaction with the “brand” in the restaurant. The original steakhouse had lots of tableside preparations and was an exciting place to be whether you liked the food or not. This restaurant is so spare. As a prototype for other Salt Bae burger places, I think it will fall flat and close within a year. People can go in and blow their money like idiots. You can spend $200 on a burger and a shake with gold leaf, or you can spend $10 and have a burger that’s likely every bit as good, which is not very.
Sutton: I think of a restaurant like Salt Bae burger as a diplomat restaurant: It’s the type of place that attracts tourists or other people familiar with this stupendously famous international brand. And I like to think, maybe incorrectly, these aren’t the same folks who would spend, like $100 on the duck carnitas at Cosme or on a bunch of small plates at Wildair. This might be their first experience dropping a whole lot of money on food. And don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying fast food can’t be elevated; there’s no shortage of wildly expensive burgers in New York. But what we had here was not good food. To think that a culinary novice might drop so much money here on a stupid wagyu burger and a $100 gold milk shake, that breaks my heart, not just because they’re getting ripped off, but because it might alienate them from exploring better and more ambitious restaurants throughout our city.