Traif Review: The Struggle for Identity in Trendy Brooklyn Eating Scene

July 13, 2012 4:19 PM EDT | By Anthony Smith
The must-have Bacon Doughnuts with Dulce de Leche and Coffee Ice Cream at Traif. (Photo: Yelp)

It's hard to tell whether we're living in the denouement or the aftermath of the Brooklyn Food Revolution. Sure, there are bold, new additions to the pantheon that seem to pop-up just about every day-- places with high Yelp scores and overly engaged Twitter accounts. But take a look at what really sticks: those precious few establishments that have the distinct honor of galvanizing even the most jaded proponents of the Brooklyn scene (a scene promulgated exclusively by the jaded enfranchised) into stopping by to see for themselves what all the hype is all about.

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I'm talking about places like Bed-Stuy's critical-darling Do or Dine, Brooklyn's latest attempt to wink at the rest of the world by way of a cheekily experimental, aggressively parodical approach to the movement's most divisive cliches. If you don't get what any of that means, I humbly submit to you as Exhibits A and B their deviled e666s appetizer and their only dessert of frozen Snickers bar. Yes, that's how they both appear on the menu. Yes, now you understand completely

It's almost irrefutable: places with that kind of approach to foodiness seem to suggest that everything that could be said by the minds responsible for the movement is now being said about the minds responsible for the movement. If the food at Do or Dine weren't actually good, it'd be the culinary-entrepreneurial equivalent of a middle finger. And based on the hype its been receiving this past year, critic and patron alike seem to be saying the exact same thing: it's about damn time.    

What, then, should we make of the other Brooklyn restaurants with earnest and admirable intentions whose relevance teeters on the brink of a total eclipse?

Take a look at (if not a trip to) the existential crisis as seen through the worthy eyes of South Williamsburg's Traif, an establishment located just North of the B-Burg Bridge overpass. On their website, in orange font, the establishment boasts that it exists to "[celebrate] pork, shellfish, & globally-inspired soul food."

What does that mean? In 2012, it means nothing; but it's an endearing, if calculated, sentiment, sort of like an old friend that all-of-a-sudden wants to keep in touch because you got cool.

Am I being too harsh? I don't think so. After all, it's no secret that this is a neighborhood that loves its pigs (Fette Sau, everywhere), oysters (Walter Foods, Maison Premiere, everywhere), and soul food (Pies n Thighs, everywhere). This is a restaurant whose creative team wants to be a part of that love, even if it means a woefully transparent attempt at pandering to an obvious and middling common denominator. Its identity suffers for it, to the point of being non-existent, or having one very visible finger just south of the pulse. Traif seems to take the bird that more relevant restaurants are flipping it and tries to find a way to serve that bird with pork belly and oysters.

But just because it doesn't have a personality doesn't mean it doesn't have a soul, or a talented team, or quality food. Make no mistake: the food is delicious. You just have to wade through a lot of needless poetry. But just underneath that obvious veneer of tepid poetry toil wonderfully satisfying ingredients all struggling, and more often than not succeeding, to work together.

Take, for example, a dish pairing blistered shishito peppers, cantaloup, feta, mint, and orange. It certainly sounds lovely, even foolproof, but as it's presented, the shishito peppers are barely integrated into the dish. They come on top, begging you to eat them with your hands. Once you do, you'll quickly realize that they're cooked perfectly. But the rest of the dish-- the beating heart of it, the perfectly flavored cantaloup fruit salad below, serves as little more than a decorative bed for the peppers. You have to switch utensils mid-dish. Along with this switch in utensils comes full 180-degree turn in flavor.

In spite of that criticism, the dish is a success, albeit a middling one, for the sheer fact that the taste is excellent. Devising a way to bring the disparately presented ingredients together would allow the dish to soar to stratospheric heights. The same can be said about the burrata cheese and mission fig starter, a salad whose unlikely sum predictably and immediately falls apart; but, when dis-integrated, enjoys a stimulating livelihood on the tongue that most dishes can only dream of.

The best items on their menu are the most simple: a tuna dish that pairs a cold, spicy bigeye salad with a fried eggplant tempura and keycap manis is utter bliss by way of the simple genius of its conception and the concise perfection of its execution. It's flawless, indisputably so, and for nine bucks, you get a reasonably large helping of that flawlessness

And that's the best aspect of this restaurant: once you shuck away the pretentiousness it feels (and, only time will tell, may very well be correct in feeling) is necessary to its success in this borough, you'll see a heaping portion of generosity and kindness at its core. The portions here are larger than tapas, even generous by the standards of an appetizer, and the prices are truly reasonable. The low costs here invites you to try as many items on the menu as you can, and to take the same culinary risks that the restauranteurs are. It's a charming reminder about the complicity of trendy and pseudo-trendy establishments: a visit means you're intrigued, a return means you agree.

But even when you're serving up tried-and-true cliches in an attempt to intrigue, there is a strong element of risk involved. The more critical components of this review are proof of it. And fortunately, by the time you come to dessert-- or more appropriately, by the time you see no alternative but to order the slap-your-mother-silly-they're-so-good bacon doughnuts served with dulce de leche and coffee ice cream-- you'll see what we do: this is a special place whose creative team is still in the process of figuring out what makes it special. The food here is indisputably delicious, even when it doesn't come together. It's proof that the only thing that Traif is lacking is a thesis.

Grade: A-


229 South 4th Street

Brooklyn, NY 11211 

© 2012 Food & Recipe All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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