Chef Jason Marcus superstitiously believes in patterns, and in his view the fates conspired for him to open his new restaurant in Brooklyn, where he serves the shellfish and pork that he unabashedly loves. "It's probably because I'm Jewish," Marcus says about his obsession with synchronicity, and about his love for pork, shellfish, and even Seinfeld.
The restaurant, which Marcus opened with his non-Jewish girlfriend, Heather Heuser, is a paean to foods forbidden by Jewish dietary laws. They aptly chose the Yiddish word traif, meaning non-kosher, to be their restaurant's new name.
Sitting at the southern tip of trendy Williamsburg on South 4th Street between Roebling and Havemeyer, Traif faces the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, as well as the Broadway Avenue dividing line between hipster and Hasidic Williamsburg, where there have been recent tensions between the two communities. The restaurant's notable characteristics—its explicit irony, its lack of any discernable outdoor sign, the local artwork on the walls, its specialty dishes like strawberry-cinnamon baby back ribs, and its stunning outdoor garden—are assuredly in keeping with restaurants of its ilk in the northern section of Williamsburg, though there's a strong Jewishness that runs through the restaurant and its owners, which makes Traif a unique bridge between the dissonant worlds of North and South.
Heuser, who manages the restaurant, likes to think the restaurant takes from Judaism what she most appreciates about her partner's religious tradition: the emphasis on "family, rituals, and people coming together around food." To encourage community, the owners chose a tapas-style menu so every dish can be shared. Small oval plates accompany each entrée, salad, and dessert.
Heuser and Marcus are particularly friendly, ready to chat about the food, the artwork, and any detail from any episode of Seinfeld that the two can impressively recall in an instant—all creating somewhat of a haimish (homey) and inviting environment.
The restaurant offers a mix of well-priced, exciting dishes, including a spicy tuna tartare with tempura eggplant and a crisp pork belly with braised artichokes and Muscat grapes. The chef is especially excited about two dishes: his braised pork cheeks à l'ancienne, which his parents deemed "the best brisket ever," and the sea scallops, snap pea, and English pea risotto served with caper brown butter, another "traify" dish that Marcus loves for its seasonality. The dessert that has received a lot of attention is the bacon doughnut with dulce de leche and coffee ice cream, though the miniature red velvet and carrot cupcakes are classy touches that further acclimate Traif to New York's dining culture.
A unique buzz emanated from the Jewish community, and some of its blogs and newspapers, in advance of Traif's opening, specifically among Jews who have left Orthodox Judaism. One formerly religious Jew and current stand-up comedian, Joshie ("it's one name, like Cher or Madonna"), began following the buzz and showed up on opening night.
"If this was 10 years ago, there's no way his windows would not be broken," said Joshie, who felt the need to support Traif in its opening week when he read negative comments on Traif's blog that he viewed as "thinly veiled" threats from the nearby Orthodox community. Joshie's two friends—one of whom is the son of a prominent rabbi and who ate non-kosher for the first time nearly a year ago in Las Vegas with Penn & Teller—said the food was truly special, far beyond their expectations. Joshie himself said he owes the owners for a touching evening, which he described as "getting off on a psychological level," and he added that he is interested in talking with the owners about hosting a meet-up of similarly disoriented former Orthodox Jews at the restaurant once a week.