Kebab Kid, 90 New King’s Road, London SW6 4LU. Takeaway only, cash only, kebabs £4.75-£9.50.
Nusr-Et Steakhouse, 101 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7EZ (01821 687738), steaks £85-£1,450.
A Sunday lunchtime and I am sitting outside a restaurant in London’s Knightsbridge famed for serving a £1,450 steak, eating an £8.50 kebab. I have brought my own table, chair and chequered tablecloth. It’s a ludicrous gesture, but then the Nusr-Et Steakhouse is a ludicrous restaurant, and one stupid turn deserves another. Still, I’m certain that I am eating better than all the customers through the huge wooden doors behind me, spaffing their sticky largesse over gold-leaf wrapped steaks. Because my lamb shawarma comes from the legendary Kebab Kid in Parsons Green, and very nice it is, too.
The Nusr-Et Steakhouse, inside the Park Tower Hotel, is the latest opening from Turkish butcher-turned steak monger Nusret Gökçe, better known as Salt Bae. A few years ago, a video of his signature steak salting move went viral. He was pictured in a tight white T-shirt and dark glasses, sprinkling salt down his muscular forearm as if proving he could both season the beef and pop an ovary in one move. Imagine Rod Hull’s Emu, bare naked and disgracing himself by vomiting down his own neck. Salt Bae, which means Salt Baby, was born. He now has 38m followers on Instagram. If you were looking for something to illustrate the male terror of sexual inadequacy, a Salt Bae video would serve beautifully. He wields knives. He likes to be photographed bare-chested.
There are now 19 Salt Bae steakhouses worldwide, trading in stupidly expensive steaks, many of them entirely wrapped in gold leaf, flogged to people who should know better. They include David Beckham, Leonardo DiCaprio and the Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. The gold-wrapped burger is £100. The gold-wrapped eight-hour short rib is £765. There’s the 2kg Tomahawk at £1,450. Finish with gold-wrapped baklava for £50. Shortly after the London branch opened, a photograph of a £1,812.40 receipt for a table of six went viral, including £1.40 cans of Red Bull at £11.
Many suggested I should eat there and take the place apart limb from gold-encrusted limb. I declined. This newspaper has better things to spend its money on. In any case, it turned out I could learn an awful lot without ever stepping inside. One afternoon I popped along to get a look at the menu with prices. It’s not on the website, but is available at the restaurant on a QR code. It comes complete with videos of golden steaks wreathed in dry ice, like dodgy contestants in Stars in their Eyes. Tonight, Matthew, I will be a bloody outrage. A woman behind a golden rope was busy telling a solo diner that he could only have his table for an hour. I chatted with a be-stubbled man who had popped out for a cigarette. How much was he spending today? He shrugged. “Three or four?” We’re not talking hundreds, are we? “No, but there are seven of us.” I ask him what his job is. He laughs. “I’m a wanker in finance.” So why is he doing it? “It’s a bit of fun isn’t it? And the man himself is in there.” Salt Bae has 19 restaurants; I wonder how business will cope when he’s elsewhere.
Here’s the thing. Some metals are more reactive than others. Never try eating with brass cutlery. Your dinner will taste horrid. Stainless steel is great. And then there’s the least reactive metal of all: gold. Food wrapped in gold will literally taste of nothing, at least at first. Weird as it may sound, I like my food to taste of something. Which is why I decide to get mine from Kebab Kid.
It was opened by a Greek Cypriot couple, Cos and Yanni, in 1976 and then acquired by the current owners, the Hatch-Barnwells, a decade later. They changed nothing, save to add a couple of dishes. It is now run by their son Charles who credits his Indonesian mother with the new recipes. It is take-away as cult, especially among London cabbies, which naturally means you’ll find customer reviews online saying it’s not all that. It is all that.
Start with the garlicky, deep-fried chicken wings, the meat cut away from the bone so it curls up for easy access. Have the cumin-boosted falafel. The lamb shoulder and chicken shawarma are constructed each day, marinated then grilled on the spit until a deep crusty brown. Any trimmed lamb fat helps fry the hand-cut chips. The salads are crunchy. Ask for a smear of tzatziki. Don’t forget the pickled bird’s eye chillies for punch. Make sure to get a triangle of their deep-filled baklava, made for them to a North African recipe by a former employee. Yours for £3, not £50.
Just like Salt Bae, the woman serving me here has a long knife. She doesn’t wait for me to get my phone out before using it efficiently to slice the meat. She also sprinkles salt on the kebab from a shaker, like a normal person who isn’t thinking about Instagram. I eat the wings and the first kebab in my neighbour’s car. Marc has been trying to get me along for years and I can see why. He and his wife Elvira come here every Valentine’s Day to eat kebabs in the car, because romance isn’t dead. I can feel the love. I can also smell Marc’s can of Vimto. He’s only my neighbour; I didn’t bring him up.
We take another kebab to the Nusr-Et and I set up the table for my grandstanding gesture. In my more benevolent moments, I wonder whether Mr Salt Bae isn’t actually having the last laugh. Unlike the billionaire Sultan of Brunei, owner of the most recent restaurant outrage at the Dorchester, he didn’t start a rich man. He came from a poor working-class family. Now he’s rinsing the rich and stupid. It could almost be inspiring.
There is a 1976 essay on the end of empires by the fabulously named General Sir John Glubb which is instructional here. He posits that empires move from affluence to decadence easily, and then collapse. Sitting at my picnic table holding one of Kebab Kid’s finest, I wonder whether we are now teetering on the edge. After all, as well as tasting of nothing, all that gold leaf will pass straight through the body. So let me leave you with this image: Salt Bae’s customers, the morning after the night before, getting off the throne, looking down and clocking that all their money has bought them is a bunch of glittering turds.
Brad Carter of Carters of Moseley in Birmingham has opened a kebab shop in Manchester. His One Star Döner Bar is part of the Escape to Freight Island food market in the city’s Mayfield district. The venture, based on Carter’s street food experiences in Berlin, began life during lockdown, while the restaurant was shut. The kebabs are made with Cornish lamb and Tamworth White chicken and are wrapped in pide from a Turkish bakery in Manchester. Visit escapetofreightisland.com.
Welsh restaurateurs Phill and Deb Lewis, who already have a group of pizzerias in south Wales, have now opened Kindle, a sustainability-led small plates restaurant in Cardiff. It’s located on the site of a former warden’s cottage in Sophia Gardens and all seating is outdoors under covered pergolas. Blankets and hot-water bottles are available. Chef Tom Powell, formerly of the Walnut Tree outside Abergavenny, has come up with a short menu including celeriac bravas, quail with champ and collard greens with coal roasted onions. At kindlecardiff.co.uk.
And another sign of how we comforted ourselves through the dark lockdown days of 2020: the pizza delivery and take away company Papa John’s has reported turnover up nearly 30% to £94.9m, and operating profits up 200% from £2.6m to £8m. During the period they opened 20 new stores bringing the chain to 467 sites in the UK. See papajohns.co.uk.
Email Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1