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.
Jason Marcus's connection to the forbidden is far different from some of his ex-Orthodox patrons: a nice Jewish boy from Randolph, New Jersey, he was bar mitzvahed at a reform synagogue. However, his connection still runs deep. "Do you have to call it Traif?" his mother, who grew up in a family that mostly kept kosher inside the house and let the rules slide outside, asked of her son.
Yes, he did. "It represents who I am, [and] I'm proud of who I am," Marcus says. He also believes it is a different story now in Williamsburg, where many of the customers he is targeting won't even know what traif means. Moreover, Marcus cannot deny that he loves taboo foods, and as he says, "I don't see a contradiction between eating bacon and all the other [religious] things I don't do."
Marcus is counting on other Jews to hear about his restaurant and think, "Cool, I'm a non-kosher Jew too." Traif's timing is impeccable, because within this past year the greater American Jewish community has been discussing its various food taboos and those who flout them. There have been articles—click here and here for examples—in the Jewish press about Jewish-owned restaurants and businesses embracing the pork trend, and the more specific bacon trend, which may have reached its crescendo with the bacon-wrapped matzoh balls recently featured on Top Chef.
"Everything tastes better with bacon" is the recent culinary truism that resonates with Marcus, who has taken it upon himself to begin "spreading the gospel" about the deliciousness of non-kosher foods.
While Marcus and Heuser entertained patrons at their bar one early evening during their opening week, another Seinfeld reference came up, this time from Seinfeld episode 93, "The Soup," in which Elaine is denied her big salad at the show's new diner. Like Reggie's diner, Traif does not offer a big salad, but Heather made clear that Traif was the kind of place where a request for a big salad would not be denied. However, the odds are that the salad would be dotted with flakes of bacon.
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