There is no love in the world of food that can compare to my love for pork. Any flavour or emotion desired is achievable with a dish derived from this blessing from the heavens. With pork, the tasty possibilities are endless.
Lost, cold and hungry? Tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen will warm the poor soul up. Looking for a salty and crisp snack? Bacon or pig ears are coming to the rescue. Need something rich yet elegant? Slow-braised pork belly will take care of that.
The good people at Traif in Brooklyn share my love for this amazing creature! Really, how can you resist a restaurant with a heart for a pig as its logo? And so it was with a tremendous amount of anticipation that I visited Traif to pay homage to the humble pig.
The restaurant name Traif is the Yiddish term for non-kosher, a perfect encapsulation of the irreverence on display when a Jew opens a meat-heavy restaurant steps away from possibly the most Jewish neighbourhood in the USA, South Williamsburg.
Chef/owner Jason Marcus honed his skills at both Le Bernardin and Eleven Madison Park before opening his own place. Those skills are readily apparent in the complexity and refined touch behind the dishes that provides some substance to back the ideology promoted at Traif.
The menu is focused on small plates for sharing, with prices ranging from $5 to $20 depending on the ingredients used. Many common animal products and cuts found on tapas menus are represented, including foie gras, pork belly and bacon-wrapped dates, although there’s also plenty of selections for salads and seafood available. Three plates per person is a good guideline to follow for a meal here.
Despite my expectation that this would be a unabashed and raw tribute to the world of pork, all the plates that I had carried themselves with an unexpected touch of refinement and the unique twists used were applied in a subtle manner.
The food overall was really good but none of the main plates ranked in my mind as extraordinary and I felt that things could have been more adventurous at times. The rave reviews for their bacon doughnuts certainly did not disappoint though!
Time for this pig to pay homage at this Brooklyn shrine for meat-lovers, Traif!
Things Roger Ate like a Pig
Amuse Bouche: Chilled Red Pepper Soup – 5/6 (Excellent), complimentary
It may not have fit in with all the pork idolizing, but this is where Chef Marcus’ background in world-class restaurants comes to the forefront with tasty effect!
This chilled red pepper soup was delicate and refreshing yet each bite tingled with the prominent flavours of red bell pepper. A sip of the soup started out with a rich and smooth feel on the tongue, similar to tomato bisque, that gradually melted away to leave behind a refreshing tinge of raw pepper.
I’m sad that there wasn’t more of this available because I would’ve ordered it in a heartbeat!
Spicy bigeye tuna tartare, tempura japanese eggplant, kecap manis – 4.5/6 (Very Good – Excellent), $9
Traif may be a haven for meat-lovers but this tuna plate was one of my favourite of the night! This well-balanced and nicely spiced fusion of Asian cultures made for a delicious snack!
The spicy tuna tartare used noticeably good-quality fish, dispelling any fears that I had about this being like all you can eat sushi. Too often spice is used to mask poor quality tuna, but what was used here retained every aspect of the fish’s intended texture and flavour while still giving a nice hit of heat.
The Japanese eggplant tempura was an interesting concept! The tempura itself was decent without an overly thick layer of batter and I liked how the mild eggplant taste worked together with the spicy tuna. I did think that the eggplant wasn’t as sweet and fresh as it could be which has to do with eggplant not being in season until the summer.
I’m curious as to why eggplant is used year-round here, as I noticed the secondary components of other dishes vary from month to month depending on seasonal availability.
I think my favourite concept here was the use of kecip manis! It’s an Indonesian sweetened soy sauce that’s thick and has a molasses-like sweetness from the addition of palm sugar. There was only a light drizzle applied to the plate but its dark sugary taste worked surprisingly well with the tuna, reminding me a little like how eel meshes so well with kabayaki sauce.
Don’t be scared off by the seafood dishes at Traif! The meat dishes may seem like the focus but plates like this are no slouches either!
Berkshire pork belly, heart of palm salad, meyer lemon – 3/6 (Good), $11
I expected to like this more than I did, especially with pork belly being a pretty forgiving ingredient, but unfortunately it was the most disappointing dish of the night. It was still decent, but I was hoping for something more memorable.
Berkshire pigs are one of the oldest British pig breeds and are prized for their high marbleized fat content that gives them superior tenderness and flavour. Somehow the pork belly meat was quite a bit tougher than I expected though even though it was balanced with the top layer of moist melt-in-your-mouth fat.
The crispy layer of pig skin on top was separated from the rest of the pork belly in to give the layered appearance, but trying to cut through all the layers at once was surprisingly hard with the meat not being so tender. The pork flavours also seemed a little diluted and I felt that the meat could’ve been braised for longer to make it more tender and allow the fat to infuse even more flavour.
The heart of palm and snow pea salad was quite sour, perhaps in anticipation of the richness that the pork belly was supposed to bring. Given that the pork belly wasn’t very fatty and rich though (for what it is), I thought that it was a little overpowering.
The meyer lemon puree was my favourite pairing here! The sweetness of the meyer lemon was exhibited really well and it hit the perfect balance between sweet and tart to enhance the pork belly without overshadowing it.
Overall I was hoping for a little more from this and it sounded better on paper than it turned out in reality.
Strawberry-cinnamon glazed baby back pork ribs, pomegranate – 4/6 (Very Good), $10
Strawberry and cinnamon is certainly not a combination you see very often on baby back ribs! This was exactly how I’d imagine these ribs to be: somewhat fruity and unique from the cinnamon but most importantly the ribs were solid as well!
The meat was tender and easily ripped off the rib bones with a good balance between meatiness and the sweet spiced glaze. I think there were only five ribs given though and ideally there would’ve have been more given, preferably a round number to make this easier to share.
Speaking of the glaze, the fruitiness was apparent from the strawberry and the pomegranate and the hint of cinnamon brought an interesting twist to these ribs that was quite tasty! It wasn’t too different from a Kansas-style glaze on top though so I wouldn’t necessarily call this a ground-breaking approach to ribs, but they were tasty nevertheless.
There wasn’t any smokiness that I could detect here so my guess would be that these were baked, which is fine in my opinion for the fruity and delicate flavours highlighted with the preparation here.
Sautéed Veal Sweetbreads, artichokes, asparagus, cherry tomatoes, leek – 4.5/6 (Very Good - Excellent), $17
I have a huge crush on sweetbreads (thymus/pancreas) so when I saw it on the menu I had to order it! This pairing felt almost like a cooked sweetbread salad with all the different vegetables plated here.
The sweetbreads were fried with a little bit of breading that imparted a little bit of a crisp on the outside to counter the tender sweetbread flesh. I did feel like the crisp exterior was drowned out a bit by the vegetable-based sauce and I’m used to having them prepared crispier than they were here.
The characteristic funky flavour of sweetbreads was present occasionally but in the overall context of the dish everything was quite well balanced and I would consider this a good introduction to their taste for the uninitiated.
I was expecting something a little bolder and meat-forward from this plate than the balanced and restrained approach taken here, with the influence from Chef Marcus’ fine dining experience quite apparent. I enjoy both approaches, but it caught me a little by surprise given my impressions of the meat-heavy theme before eating here.
The veggies here toned down the sweetbread flavour to make it seem more like a traditional meat. The glaze was imparted with some of the tartness of the tomatoes but was also quite savoury and I wouldn’t be surprised if sweetbread drippings and/or mushrooms were also incorporated.
The asparagus, artichoke hearts and mushrooms all soaked in the umami sauce to mellow and round out the flavours on the plate, especially the slight woody bitterness of the asparagus. Nothing was mushy as might be suggested by the appearance.
The one component that didn’t quite mesh so well for me was the cherry tomatoes, which brightened up the dish but was too startlingly different from the laid-back umami approach with everything else. Personally I would’ve gone for something with a cleaner and more toned sweetness to round out the plate (gala apple slices perhaps?).
Overall I enjoyed this sweetbread dish a lot! It didn’t come as expected but it was a well-balanced and restrained take on fried sweetbreads.
Seared foie, fingerlings, ham chips, sunny egg, maple, hot sauce – 4/6 (Very Good), $18
Now we get to the decadent part of the meal! Come on, foie gras with a sunny-side egg on top with maple syrup?! If that’s not a homage to the brash ways of Montreal dining I don’t know what is. Everything about this dish screamed Joe Beef (Montreal), even if it wasn’t quite as substantial in portion size and as over-the-top as their Double Down of foie gras.
The easiest and one of the most delicious ways to eat foie gras is simply to sear it with some salt and pepper, and that’s exactly what was done here. The slab of duck liver sat on top of a mound of potatoes to make it look larger than it was, but all things considered I think the value was fine. It was grilled almost to a char which gave it a solid crust.
Dipping the lustily fatty foie gras into the egg yolk sauce was pure decadence at its finest! Everything about enveloping melting oily livers in yellow cholesterol goo seems over-the-top, yet when you have it there’s simply no way to stop eating!
There were some roasted fingerling potatoes beneath both the egg and the slab of foie. Nothing extraordinary, but these were some solid roast potatoes and a necessary filler to add some substance to such a decadent dish.
The touches of maple (a little more watery and mild than maple syrup) and hot sauce were mild and tempered but did their job. The maple brought a hint of maple’s complex sweetness while the hot sauce was little more than a cursory touch of heat, nothing too strong to take away from the foie but enough to make its voice heard.
Nothing here was quite revolutionary, but this was a pretty solid take on foie gras.
Bacon doughnuts, dulce de leche , coffee ice cream – 6/6 (Must Try!), $7
ASDF#I@H#T*! So delicious! This might just be the most memorable restaurant dessert I’ve had in quite some while.
You’d think it’d be special for the bacon, but surprisingly that’s not what makes this dessert tick. Only the slight bit of saltiness incorporated into this dessert in the form of bacon bits served as a reminder of pork’s involvement in this dish.
The star of the show was the wonderful deep-fried doughnuts! Inside the thin crisp outside layer was a warm, airy middle packed with smooth buttery goodness. My guess was that some bacon fat was used in the deep-frying process, hence bacon doughnuts, but that didn’t come through very strongly in taste.
Dulce de leche was the perfect coating for these doughnuts! The rich aromas of caramelized sugar livened up the doughnuts in a sublime manner. Put everything together and the union of sugar, fat and salt in the perfect ratio was simply irresistible. I don’t think my description does it any justice to how good it truly was!
Normally I’d be praising the hot/cold contrast that the coffee ice cream paired on the side provided, but the doughnuts were just so good that I couldn’t be bothered to have it with the ice cream! By itself it was solid though, not super high in quality with the occasional small bits of ice but it was fine for the intention here and the ambitions of the restaurant.
Needless to say, any visitor to Traif should save room for these bacon doughnuts!
Pineapple with Pomegranate Molasses
The meal ended with a small bite of pineapple with pomegranate molasses. It was fine and I didn’t note the tongue-numbing presence of bromelain, but it still wasn’t as good as fresh tropical pineapples. The pomegranate molasses was light and I could only barely taste the pomegranate flavour. An interesting way to end but nothing to write home about.
Traif may seem like a shrine to the meat gods, but the execution here is much more restrained and balanced than you’d expect! The dishes present the wonders of your favourite animal parts and seafood with a tasty balance and elegance that evokes Chef Jason Marcus’ background in Michelin-star restaurants.
Date visited: Apr. 14, 2013
Price range: $40 – $50