Art And Traif

by Glen Roven Emmy Award winner, composer, lyricist, conductor, pianist, translator and CD Producer. 16.04.2015

Last December, on the coldest night of the year, I trekked to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and, literally shaking in my boots, searched for the Castor Gallery, a small, but important exhibition space. Wandering around Broome Street trying to find it took me an hour. Yesterday, as spring finally broke through, and, hoping to bring a closure to this brutal winter, I again went to Broome Street — this time I knew where it was — to the K. Gallery, formally the P. Gallery. (I suppose those names have something to do with the owner, Prem Krishnamurthy.)

To fit in with the hip Lower East Side crowd and because it was — wait for it — sunny, I wore my coolest new sunglasses. Here’s my shameful secret: I buy my shades based on whatever style Kyle Chandler, the actor, happens to be wearing on his current TV series. For years I wore the Oakley’s that Chandler’s character Coach Taylor wore on Friday Night Lights; now I sport his Fisherman Eyewear brand from Bloodlines. Wearing the same glasses as Kyle, I somehow feel… pathetic, I know.

Back to art: I discovered Brooklyn-based artist Aaron Gemmill at this year’s SPRING/BREAK Art Show and was transfixed by his print “To live where other pass (nest II),” with its bolts of white dancing across the luxurious background of undulating blue. For the show at K., Gemmill collaborated with Matthew Schrader, a fellow student of the Milton Avery Graduate School of Arts at Bard College, and the two of them are exhibiting in this joint show, Tactile Pose.

The themes seem to be material structures of urban power and the symbols of state power taken apart and reassembled into different shapes and combinations.

Gemmill has a history of working with complex systems: manipulating them, redefining them, finding mistakes in them. For his prints at K. he took a road map of Staten Island and separated out all the individual line segments; using a computer program, he condensed them to the smallest possible area. (He made similar work for all the boroughs but this show only exhibits five Staten Island prints.) The works are all called Maximum circulation maximum control and are 72x50 inches (lithographic ink, Plexiglas, paper), my favorite was hung behind the business desk of the gallery, the white “roads” raining down from a sky of dark blue onto a complex surface design of mountains (?) fields (?) despair(?).

Schrader’s intense sculptures reference the 83rd Police Precinct in Bushwick (he lives and work in Brooklyn), where a giant frieze adorns the entrance. Working with CNC plasma-cut steel, different printer inks and even lemon juice, he copied the sculpture, deconstructed all the elements of the frieze, aged them, and finally reassembled them at the gallery using magnets to hold the newly created images together. These works also titled Maximum circulation maximum control, 2015 are brutal but strangely moving, almost as if the structural elements themselves are saying, “See, we’re just shapes. Assembly us anyway you like and see how lovely we become.”

After the art and continuing my celebration of Persephone’s arrival, I took the train to downtown Williamsburg (of course wearing my sunglasses at night, thank you Cory Hart), repeating a journey I had made recently when I ate at the Michelin-starred Meadowsweet. This time I had a different restaurant in mind. Being a good Jewish boy and preparing emotionally for the Seder at my sister’s, I knew where I was going to eat: the restaurant called Traif. As every New Yorker knows (because every New Yorker’s second language is Yiddish) traif means non-kosher food. It can also be used as an adjective, just like “non-kosher” can, to modify anything from a person to a theatrical event with definite pejorative overtones.

Continuing the all-things-ironic motif of Williamsburg, the owners of Traif opened their restaurant right next to the Hassidic neighborhood in Brooklyn. Oy!

The unassuming entrance is in direct contrast to the come-hither twinkling lights of Meadowsweet. Maybe the owners wanted to keep a low profile in the land of the black hats: the only signage was a small logo on the temporary wind-blocking structure, a cute little piggy with an “I luv you” heart on drawn on its cute little piggy tummy.

What are Traif’s signature dishes? Shellfish and pork, of course, the perfect pre-Seder meal. (Actually, I was looking forward to this Seder because I had somehow persuaded my 93-year-old mother to dress up like Pharaoh and scream during the meal, “Hey Jews, Go back to building my Pyramids.” Fun for all!)

Traif is similar to many Clubs where the front door offers no indication of the excitement that lurks within. I was a bit overwhelmed by the joie de vie of the patrons and the lively atmosphere. This was clearly a local hang-out with the clientele eager to drink, mingle and to sample owner and chef Jason Marcus’s latest creations.

I gingerly asked our server. “Er…do the Hassidim every come in here?” “Oh, sure,” she happily answered. “All the time, but they usually hide in the back.”

The ultimate question answered, our server explained that this is a family-style restaurant where each party is encouraged to share dishes. The menu was a bit overwhelming so I asked her to suggest some favorites. Julie enthusiastically helped us navigate; she said six dishes seemed to be the magic number for a perfect two-person meal and recommended some signatures dishes as well as new ones the chef is experimenting with. (For the full experience, there is also a Chef’s Sampler available for $50 per person.)

The dishes arrived two at a time, each one beautifully presented in different geometrically shaped dishes, each form highlighting the presentation.

For an amuse bouche we were served a rich, creamy pea soup in a ceramic shot glass which we both downed it in one fell swoop. That’s how we roll in Brooklyn. My guest said he didn’t really like pea-soup, but loved this.

The first two dishes to arrive were bay scallops on snap and English pea risotto, with caper-tomato brown butter, and the Salt and Pepper Shrimp, with chunks of pineapple, bits of sweet potato, tiny snow peas and sweet-spicy Thai vin. The food tasted as delicious as it sounded with all the different flavors bouncing off my pallet in a gastronomic counterpoint. The scallops were meaty and succulent and, though the shrimp was a bit spicy for my companion, I loved the kick, especially in tandem with the savory scallops.

Waiting for our next dishes, we continued to bask in the friendly environment, quite enjoying the bartender’s “maracas dance” as he mixed cocktails. When the drink was mixed, we marveled at the Kadinsky-esque mural that spanned the length of the restaurant. Next out came my two favorites: spicy big-eye tuna tartar with tempura Japanese eggplant and kecap manis (a slightly thicker soy sauce), and a slowly roasted rack of lamb, English peas, mint green garlic, and pistachio. The eggplant was turned into a cracker, fried into a crunchy delight on which the tuna lay impressively presented, but this was not just your ordinary cracker. The flavor of the eggplant burst out in an exuberant union with the freshness and slight salt of the tuna. The lamb, one of my favorite foods, was pink perfection and I loved the finger bowls (shaped like a threedimensional ellipse, of course) one of our attentive servers put on the table.

By this time we were actually quite full but had two more dishes to come: the traif. Worth waiting for? Is Porky a Pig? (I’m assuming my naughty, guilty pleasure added to the taste.) At this point the strawberry-cinnamon glazed Berkshire baby back ribs sounded like it was possibly a huge mistake. We never kept Kosher at home, (although my mom drew the line with pig) but the cinnamonstrawberry gave a truly unusual kick to the succulent and tender ribs and I was thrilled the dish was recommended. I can understand why the Hassids sneak into this restaurant having tasted the BBQ, braised short rib sliders!

Throughout the meal, the locals kept the restaurant humming while the patrons at the bar watched the chef cook at the kitchen that was visible from the back of the bar. The kitchen was so small, it was hard to believe such delicacies and in such quantity could be produced in such an assuming place. I guess size doesn’t matter. At least in a kitchen.

We didn’t order dessert but out came another signature dish — the bacon-flecked donuts with dulce de leche and coffee ice cream. I admit I was terrified. But when you’re in Rome (or Traif)… All reservations disappeared when I popped one in my mouth. Chef Jason explained in a recent interview that bacon and doughnuts are both acceptable at breakfast, so this crossover made perfect sense to him. Tying it all together with the dulce de leche was pure brilliance. We were also served hot apple pie, freshly backed by the chef’s mom, keeping it all in the family.

After the meal, I discovered there’s a sister restaurant next-door, Xixa, with the same owners, same chef. How is Xixa even pronounced? Shicksa of course. I can’t wait to go. With my Jewish friend Jacob and his girlfriend, LaTanya!

For the restaurant Traif, please click here.

For the restaurant Xixa, please click here.

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