A love letter to Traif
Thank Salt is not a place where I intend to write restaurant reviews. I intend to celebrate my personal journey and sources of inspiration around food. But I just returned from NYC where I had a meal which caught me completely off guard. I was not looking to have my mind blown. But I did, and I want to share it with you just in case you find yourself hungry for a special dining experience in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Under the overpass where the Williamsburg Bridge offramps to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway isn’t the place you expect to find a transcendental dinner. Great bagels probably, and the google map reminds me that Peter Luger’s infamous steak joint is just on the other side of the highway. (I spent a New Year’s Eve there a thousand years ago with a bunch of professional comedians trying to out-bit one another. The company was tedious, the service winkingly awful, the steak delicious.)
A pic from that New Years Eve at Peter Lugars that sums it all up. My best guess is…2005?
But there you will find Traif, hidden on this not-very-cute street for the last thirteen years. I hadn’t heard of it until crashing into a former Seattleite, the ebullient actor Terri Weagant, on the main drag in Williamsburg.
“WHERE ARE YOU EATING TONIGHT?!?!” she demanded.
My partner and I had been traveling a ton, our pocketbooks were tight, and we knew we could eat well in New York for just a few bucks. Our plan was falafel or dirty water dogs. But it doesn’t take much to twist my arm if someone has a better idea of where to eat… “Traif,” she said. “You must go. You must! And you must do the tasting menu!”
She promised us an eight-course tasting menu for $55 that would blow our minds, and although we were sure it was hyperbole, it was worth the risk. We booked a reservation for that night. “Just don’t sit outside. The mosquitos are terrible there.” Noted.
We went on our way, bathed in and uplifted by the fizzy Terri Weagant energy, thinking about that ‘only in New York’ feeling. I lived in NYC from 1995-2007 and it feels more like my first love than any boyfriend. I ache for it when I’ve been away too long and making new memories in New York helps assuage some of the home-away-from-homesickness.
The interior of Traif feels like a thousand other Nouveau American spots –
a small open kitchen facing a crowded and very loud dining room. We were led to the back to a very sweet little atrium looking out onto a garden full of happy diners. After over a week of giant East Coast mosquitos making a meal out of me, throughout the dinner I wondered if the mosquitos were enjoying their meals as much as we were.
Once the tasting menu was agreed upon the food came tumbling at us, family style. The dishes came out as they were ready from the kitchen…no Michelin style pacing here, and no fresh silverware offered with each course. There are no linen tablecloths, no fussy service, just course after course of food packed with surprises in tastes and textures.
First up was the salad course. What looked like two miniature hearts of romaine sat on the plate, one for each of us. The cutest, teeniest, tiniest little individual salads…what is it that is so satisfying about a mini thing? Besides being adorable, the salad was also delicious: gem lettuce hearts dressed with a passion fruit and miso dressing topped in “cashew crunch” (some sort of savory nut brittle) with sesame and purple shiso. It’s an opener I will remember for years to come.
And it just kept coming.
We had fresh burrata, roasted cauliflower, tuna tartare, scallops, rigatoni, shrimp, risotto, duck breast, and short ribs all before the key lime pie and bacon ricotta “zeppoles”.
If you know your Yiddish, you will know Traif means ‘unkosher’, and most of the courses sung with pork or shellfish, sometimes both.
The Dayboat Scallops were served on a pillow of dazzlingly green English Pea Risotto, Lemon Pistachio Brown Butter, and Salsa Verde. The result was bright, silky, and buttery.
By the time the Berkshire Pork Ribs came we were coming in for a landing appetite-wise, but the way they fell off the bone, gloopy with their Strawberry-Cinnamon Glaze made them irresistible.
Strawberry-Cinnamon Glazed Ribs before they shimmmied their way right off the bone.
Finally, the desserts came. I’m not remotely a sweet tooth. While I was still in the denial stage of my dairy allergy I would have preferred cheese to dessert, now I prefer Amantillado Sherry. But oh, was that key lime pie heaven. Tangy, not too sweet, perfectly balanced with a graham cracker crust that seemed like a childhood memory I never had.
The cocktails and wine were a delicious blur.
The wine list was short, affordable, and perfect, the service was fine. A couple of times the dishes stacked up, which only added to the feeling of walking into some opulent dreamscape where the delicious food would never stop coming. I’ve had the good fortune to experience some of the best restaurants in the country over my three decades in the food service world. What sets Traif apart is not only the affordable price, (a tasting menu for the price of a single entrée at plenty of lesser restaurants,) but the surprise of it all. Each dish explodes in to textures and flavors like a beautifully wrapped gift.
Chef Jason Marcus created a dining experience that feels simultaneously easy-breezy casual and memorable. Truly one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, one that inspires me to play more and worry about convention less. Isn’t food amazing?!