The basement space at the corner of Broadway and Bleecker has taken many forms throughout its existence, but perhaps none as interesting as its original: a mid-19th century hangout for America's original bohemians. Charles Pfaff's beer cellar was long a waterhole for a group of literary thinkers such as Walt Whitman and Henry Clapp Jr., who were promoting such radical ideas as abolitionism during the Civil War era. (Gives a whole new meaning to "countercultural," doesn't it?)
The space has now been repurposed into The Vault at Pfaff's in honor of its history, though its new furnishings evoke the refinement of a gentlemen's smoking room more so than a minimalist bohemian hangout. As a nod to Whitman, who began the day with oysters and meat, order up a platter of Poet's Pearls ($18), crispy oysters served with a habanero sauce. These fried oysters were the perfect starter, lightly battered and just barely cooked.
Filet Mignon Medallions ($19), the other half to the Whitman "breakfast," were cooked to a perfect medium rare. Unfortunately, the "chef's blended cheese dressing" that accompanied the steak tasted like bland blue cheese dressing out of the bottle. A small hunk of real blue cheese would have been a better substitute.
Salmon Tartare ($17) with avocado, capers and red onion arrived at the table with delightfully crunchy yucca chips, which would have been a standout dish on its own. The tartare itself was good as expected.
The food portions are shareable but not necessarily meal-worthy, so plan to eat elsewhere before or after. A "Saturday Press" newspaper—a reference to Clapp's literary magazine—offers wine, beer and classic cocktails (with literary alliterations such as "Twain's Thyme"). Expect to pay midtown prices at this Village bar, though the friendly, knowledgeable bartenders and generous pours do help to ameliorate the sticker shock.