There are things that can happen only in New York. For example, only here can a chef think of a provocative name like “Traif” (nonkosher) and get away with it. Only here, in a clearly nonkosher restaurant, do Jewish Americans and expat Israelis come in order to break the Yom Kippur fast with something “traif.”
About 10 years ago a restaurant called Traif opened in Brooklyn which, just because of its name, attracted considerable attention. In a touch of irony, the restaurant is located not far from the Haredi neighborhood in Williamsburg, but nobody goes out to demonstrate against it. During these crazy times, Traif, like many New York restaurants, operates “outdoors,” in an open-air garden where one can sit comfortably, especially this year when the weather is particularly pleasant. Like quite a few restaurants during the days of the coronavirus, Traif also reopened in early July, after being shut down in mid-March.
“And yes, there are people who come here specifically on Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, from New Jersey for example,” says owner Jason Marcus, “only for the shtick of eating nonkosher food on this holy day. There are some who will come to break their fast with us. They think that Traif can be a symbolic place for breaking the fast.
“Once we even had a Passover Seder here at Traif,” says Marcus. “Among the guests was Mario Batali [a famous Italian-American New York chef who was subsequently accused of sexual harassment]. He isn’t Jewish, but his wife is. It was lots of fun.”
Jason Marcus, 40, the man behind Traif, is in fact Jewish. He doesn’t come from a religious home (his parents are Reform Jews), but he heard the word “traif” constantly from his grandfathers and grandmother. When he opened the restaurant, Marcus thought that it could be a provocative name that would attract attention but, he adds, without any malicious intent to insult or hurt anyone. And the gimmick worked. The restaurant received considerable media coverage, which probably would not have been the case if not for its name.
The first impression when you hear the name of the restaurant is that there’s a celebration of permissiveness there, centered on pork. The truth is that on the day I visited, there was only one pork dish on the menu. Yes, there are frogs’ legs. There was also seafood, such as crabs and scallops, but they were also pretty much in the minority. But still there were swinish traces. In the endive salad, in addition to walnuts, croutons and blue cheese, they added snippets of bacon. And the foie gras also contained bacon. The chopped liver is served with toast spread with bacon fat. For dessert they offer bacon sufganiyot (donuts traditionally eaten on Hanukkah).
On the other hand, there are foods here that definitely don’t fall under the definition of “traif” food, such as a grilled beet salad with apples, kale, or pumpkin salad, grapes, pomegranates and feta cheese. Or Parisian-style gnocchi. In terms of meat dishes, there is more beef here (steak, ribs and short ribs) than pork. And there is also a duck confit that the rabbis may not approve in Traif’s version, but it isn’t considered nonkosher meat.
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However, the restaurant’s most famous dish is its dessert: sumptuous bacon sufganiyot. Anyone who thinks that this sounds like too much can go home with key lime pie à la Jason’s grandfather, or console yourself with pumpkin ice cream or an almond panna cotta.
The beauty of Jewish life in the United States in general and in New York in particular is that everyone observes the commandments, if at all, any way they like. There are Jews who eat kosher at home, but dine out in nonkosher restaurants that serve pork or seafood. Some will choose salmon, beef or lamb. At the moment, it’s very doubtful whether the offerings in Traif would satisfy many Jews who describe themselves as observing “kosher lite.” It’s unlikely that Marcus’ dishes, especially served up under a name like Traif, will encourage them to visit the restaurant. Others actually come for precisely that reason.
My problem with Traif is not necessarily the nonkosher meat, but the amounts of sauce that the chef uses. The food at Traif is tasty and sometimes even original, but Marcus distributes sauces too generously over almost every dish. The tuna tartare served with tempura eggplant, for example, missed the mark because of the sauce.
Marcus was born in Pittsburgh, grew up in New Jersey, studied philosophy, worked at the J.P. Morgan investment bank, but reached the conclusion that what really interests him is food. He started working in restaurants. Among other things he worked as a low-level employee at Le Bernadin and Eleven Madison Park, two of New York City’s most important upscale restaurants, at least until the advent of COVID-19.
He started his culinary career with Israeli-American chef Michael Solomonov, who later received the James Beard Award (the Oscar of Food in the United States), with his Israeli restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia. Marcus considers him a kind of big brother and mentor. He also took Marcus on one of his trips to Israel.
When he opened Traif, says Marcus, a Hasid entered the restaurant and was curious about this place which blatantly emphasizes the fact that it isn’t kosher. He received an explanation and was actually satisfied. On another occasion a religious man came in, who wanted to take nonkosher food with him in order to taste it in the privacy of his home. Incidentally, that’s not the only example of sophistry by the chef and owner. Marcus has another restaurant not far from Traif, which serves modern Mexican food. It’s called Xixa (which is pronounced “shiksa” – a derogatory term for a non-Jewish woman). He says that the name was chosen as a tribute to his wife Heather who is not Jewish. Another small act of defiance against the religious Jewish establishment, or an in-joke? Depends who you ask.
After all the initial hubbub around Traif died down, the place became a neighborhood Brooklyn restaurant, whose clientele is probably unaware of what’s behind its name. When I recently visited the restaurant there were several hipsters as well as quite a few neighbors, some of them Hispanic. The vast majority had no idea what the name means. “New York is a city with lots of restaurants with strange names,” said one of the diners. “So Traif is another one. What’s really important here is the food and not the politics of religion.”
Traif: 229 S 4th St, Brooklyn, NY 11211; Open: Mon–Sun, 5–10pm; Phone number: +1 347-844-9578; traifny.com