Dining out with Moira Hodgson

Cozy Corner Spot Harks Back

To Soho’s Salad Days

Pfiff, tucked away on a corner of Grand and Thompson streets, is a pfind. It’s only two years old, but it takes you back to the early days of Soho, before the place became, as one of the owners of the restaurant put it, a neighborhood of “white limos and pink martinis.” When we stopped by for dinner on a recent damp, drizzly evening, my son said he felt like he’d walked into someone’s living room. I felt that I had floated back into the 70’s. The artist propping up the bar was familiar: He looked like someone you would’ve seen 25 years ago in Raoul’s (or was that Fanelli’s?)-straight out of a painting by El Greco, hollow-eyed, with gaunt cheeks and a flowing beard, his graying hair now tied in a ponytail. There were crayons on our table, which was set with a paper cloth, so I began to sketch him.

The owners of Pfiff are also artists, a German-Argentinian couple, Joseph Zutelgte, who teaches at Parsons, and Patricia Dillon, who acts as hostess. She was the tall attractive tan woman in jeans, a white blouse knotted at the waist, who brought over a second cranberry juice for my son, on the house, heaped with maraschino cherries, because she instinctively knew that he’d love them.

The word pfiff means “whistle” in German, and it’s also a slang word for something that is special, stylish or done with a “twist.” The restaurant’s décor is simple, and certainly stylish: bare brick walls, Joseph Beuys prints on the light fixtures, ivory curtains tied back in a knot, orange banquettes and large windows looking onto the street. While I tried to draw the man at the bar, who kept changing position, the couple at the table next to us were doodling all over the their paper in virtual silence. Didn’t Picasso used to get free meals in exchange for the sketches he made on the tablecloths in cafés? Dream on.

The menu at Pfiff is New American with French, Mediterranean and the occasional Asian influence. There are thin-crusted pizzas (the margherita we tried had rather a tough crust), sausages grilled over wood and mussels steamed in white wine. The warm grilled vegetable tart is wonderful, a crustless disk made with layers of goat cheese, zucchini, eggplant and peppers, surrounded by squiggles of an aged balsamic vinaigrette and a basil purée. Thick, fresh spears of asparagus come in a lemony almond-brown butter vinaigrette with pieces of ruby grapefruit. A spicy shrimp roll is light and crunchy, laced with sprouts and peppers, and you dip it into a citrus sweet-and-sour sauce that makes the ones I’ve had in Chinatown seem cloying by comparison.

The restaurant was full, and there was enough of a wait between courses to get on with our drawing. While I struggled to make the head of the man at the bar look as though it belonged to the rest of his body, my son worked on a figure inspired by Japanese anime. I hadn’t sketched since I tried my hand at oil painting, specifically of nudes, at the Art Students League. At the end of the first morning, the teacher, a tubby man in brown overalls, came to look at my work. He stood for a while in silence, puffing on an enormous cigar and flicking the ash in his breast pocket. Then he took a deep sigh. “Oh, brother!” That said, he moved on to the next student.

At Pfiff, we set aside our crayons when the main courses arrived. The crab cakes are first-rate, served with a fresh corn salsa on a plate artistically decorated with swirls of a roasted red pepper vinaigrette and basil oil. The seasonal seafood risotto, topped with mussels in their shells, is delicious, the rice perfectly cooked and creamy. A schnitzel made from pork tenderloin instead of the usual (and more costly) veal is moist and tender under its crisp, greaseless bread-crumb crust and is garnished with cucumber. The truffled potato salad that comes with it is sublime, its richness cut with a sherry vinaigrette. Soft pillows of ravioli arrive under a layer of an extremely rich and unctuous sauce made with basil and goat cheese. It’s flecked with walnuts and raisins and topped with asiago cheese. Grilled leg of lamb, marinated with herbs and garlic, is nicely charred and full of flavor, with potatoes and a mustard sauce. I wonder how many people itch to get their hands on their neighbors’ polenta fries, which are cut in thick, crisp batons and served as a side dish? The food at Pfiff not only has a twist, there’s passion behind it; it’s inviting and accessible, too.

The wine list is short and international, just over two dozen bottles, many of them picked from lesser-known vineyards and most of them priced between $25 and $30.

For dessert, you can’t do better than the warm, flourless molten chocolate tart and the lovely, quivery little flan. As we were finishing ours, the couple at the next table paid their bill and left. The waitress removed their plates, and I looked over to see what they’d drawn. Among the doodles were the words, in bold letters: “Would you marry me?”

When the waitress came back to finish clearing, I showed her what they had done. She gave me a big grin, picked up the paper, folded it carefully and stashed it behind the bar. Welcome back to the old Soho.

Dining out with Moira Hodgson