Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Traif: The Temptation of Taboo
Tasteless or tasty? That was the question many were pondering when Chef Jason Marcus, and his girlfriend, Heather Heuser, opened Traif on the border of South Williamsburg's Hasidic community last April. For the goyim among us (myself included), "traif," is the Yiddish word used to describe non-Kosher food, making it easy to imagine how a restaurant which glorifies such ingredients as shellfish and all things pig could create a substantial amount of buzz from the nearby community (not always positive). However, it wasn't Traif's peculiar name, but rather the pedigree of Chef Marcus (Le Bernardin, Eleven Madison Park) that caught our attention and prompted a visit to see whether the restaurant was more than just a gimmick.
According to the reviews, Traif appears somewhat polarizing. Lauded by some for their inventive small plates and infamous bacon doughnuts others have chosen to focus on the restaurant's overly seasoned food and unrealized potential.
Able to secure same day reservations (via a message on their answering machine), MW and I arrived to a packed restaurant. If Traif has many detractors, it certainly wasn't apparent on this particular evening. The restaurant's narrow interior was lined with tables on one side opposite a long bar that overlooks the open kitchen. We were seated, in my opinion, at the best table in the entire restaurant. Directly across from the pass, we watched Chef Marcus and his staff plate each dish that went out.
Our server arrived shortly with water and described the menu, which changes daily, as being composed of small plates that are meant to be shared. Another server brought an amuse bouche of Pumpkin Massaman Curry Soup, served in small glasses. Sweet but savory from the curry, the soup, served piping hot, was an excellent start to our meal.
While we decided on our food, we each started with a cocktail. MW's Pimm's Fizz - Cava, Pimm's, Cucumber, Grapefruit - was good. Refreshing from the cucumber and effervescent cava, the drink was nicely balanced and not overly sweet. My Red Pearl - Chili-Infused Vodka, Thai Basil, Kiwi, Citrus Sour - was also solid. I especially enjoyed the slight burn from the chili-infused vodka which reminded me of a cocktail I enjoyed at Tabla.
We ordered a slew of dishes and let Chef Marcus send out the food as he saw fit. First up was Roasted Brussels' Sprouts with Grapes, Tomatoes, Puffed Rice and Chili Vin. This combination of ingredients featured a nice combination of different flavors and textures, but was undermined by the fact that the burssels sprouts had been severely overcooked and verged on being mushy.
Chef Marcus recovered nicely with the following course of Spicy Bigeye Tuna with Tempura Japanese Eggplant and Recap Manis. Diced tuna rested upon slices of crisp Japanese eggplant that had been fried tempura-style, which paired well with the spiciness from the tuna and sweetness of the recap manis.
With the restaurant slammed (unsurprising on a Saturday night), plates were a bit slower coming out of the kitchen than expected and gave us an opprotunity to sample more of the restaurant's cocktails. MW ordered a standard Mojito while I tried an Autumn Cabin - Rye Whiskey, Canton Ginger Liquor, Chocolate Bitters, 5 Spice Blend, Orange - which I enjoyed.
Our next dish, Blistered Shishito Peppers with Crispy Pork Belly, White Anchovies and Feta wasn't as successful. While individually every component was outstanding, as a whole, the dish felt unbalanced. Our main complaint was the overabundance of salt. The briny salinity from the anchovies was compounded exponentially by the crispy bits of pork belly and crumbled feta that even the sweetness of the shisito peppers couldn't balance.
Having previously worked at Le Bernardin, we thought it prudent to order the Seared Scallops with Blue Crab Bearnaise, Hedgehog Mushrooms and Cauliflower. Our decision proved right and we were handsomely rewarded with four plump sea scallops with a wonderful sear that sat on top of a silky smooth cauliflower puree and adorned with meaty hedgehog mushrooms covered with a luxuriously rich blue crab bearnaise. Especially great was the versatility of the savory mushrooms, which acted as a counterbalance to the sweetness of the scallops and cauliflower puree.
Next to arrive were the Strawberry-Cinnamon Glazed Baby Back Ribs. Getting a last minute dip in the deep fryer before being served, the meat on the ribs was both, incredibly tender as well as crispy. Coated in what appeared to be a pomegranate-cinnamon glaze, the ribs were sweet, perhaps verging on the level of cloying for some, but we found these no sweeter than Ma Peche's caramel-glazed rendition.
The Seared Foie with Fingerlings, Ham Chips, Sunny Egg, Maple and Hot Sauce was like the most decedent breakfast dish you've ever had. Combining the familiar: runny egg, potatoes, ham, syrup and hot sauce with the foie provided for an entirely novel but incredibly delicious preparation of the luxurious liver.
Due to a miscommunication with our server (aka he forgot to give the ticket to the kitchen), we had a bit of a wait before our final savory course, Crispy Veal Sweetbreads with Brussels, Eggplant and Black Truffle Jus. Fortunately, the clear consensus was that the end result warranted the excess wait. True to their description, the sweetbreads were indeed crispy. Unlike our first course, the brussels sprouts and eggplant were also deep fried and had an immensely superior texture. My only complaint was that the truffle sauce was a bit heady and masked the subtle flavor of the sweetbreads to some degree.
Already pretty full, we just couldn't leave without trying the restaurant's most famous dish, the Bacon Doughnuts with Dulche de Leche and Coffee Ice Cream. Yet another riff on breakfast, these certainly did not suck. Four golden orbs of fluffy deep fried dough were covered with a thick dulche de leche and topped with crumbled bits of salty bacon and finished with a strong coffee ice cream.
To ensure that everyone leaves Traif on a sweet note, Chef Marcus sends each table petits fours. On this particular evening we received Pineapple with Pomegranate Molasses, a perfect final bite.
Overall, we agreed with the reviews on Traif. While the restaurant's menu was certainly creative, often combining odd ingredients together, it resulted in somewhat mixed results. On one hand, a few dishes were unsuccessful, but you can hardly fault Chef Marcus for a lack of effort. In fact, we generally applaud chefs willing to take risks such as these, constantly pushing the boundaries of people's comfort levels. On the other hand, the majority of dishes were successful, with a few that were truly outstanding. Rest assured, with a large selection of small plates and some very good cocktails, Traif remains a gem and is most definitely more tasty than tasteless.
229 South 4th Street
New York, NY 11211
To see all the pictures from this meal click HERE.