Pif is a dream come true for the chef — and his diners

09_51_12-14-2001-16_09_51_552-pif_skate
Sauteed skate, with vinegared brown butter and fried capers, is one of Pif's best entrees. (Michael S. Wirtz / Inquirer)

What chef hasn't dreamed of opening a little place where he or she can create a new menu every day, inspired by a morning stroll through the local market?

Ah, to be moved to cook by an unexpected glimpse of petite turnips or a serendipitous bundle of rare dandelion greens. To hem and haw with your butcher over whether to serve venison or game birds that night. To peruse your cheesemonger's Alsatian Muensters and Reblochons for the nicest, ripest one.

The notion is just a fantasy for most chefs, who are far too busy to leave their kitchens and often are locked into set menus with only a few specials to express their moods.

But David Ansill is proving at his bright, new Pif that cooking in the heart of the Italian Market can translate this romance into reality. His small blackboard menu of French bistro fare changes daily depending on his shopping whims, and the food is not simply fresh and seasonal, but spontaneous and surprising.

Constrained by time from overcomplicating things, he turns out plates with just the right balance of deft technique and simplicity that puts the focus on good ingredients.

One night, beautiful chanterelle mushrooms from Michael Anastasio's produce warehouse on Christian Street infuse a rich cream sauce served over chicken breasts. Freshly roasted chestnuts, another find, add subtle sweetness to the veal and cognac stuffing inside two quails whose juices hint of smoky bacon.

Another night, a stop at Sonny D'Angelo's butcher shop on Ninth Street has provided the menu with two more gems. The first is sweet garlic sausage served with cabbage sauteed with onions and apples in bacon fat. The other is tender medallions of venison, rich and ruby red, with a giblety hint of game that Ansill massages with a marinade of sherry vinegar and juniper berries.

Opened in July with the help of his French wife, Catherine Gilbert-Ansill, this plainly decorated nook has only 38 seats, a size that lends itself to a freewheeling, flexible format. But Ansill's market-basket cuisine is also in keeping with the spirit of Pif, the name of a French comic book character and a word that is French slang for "improvisation."

But pulling it off as well as Ansill does is harder than it looks.

To begin with, who would risk opening a French restaurant in South Philadelphia, where the restaurants are typecast as Italian? Judging from the surprising number of reservations from area code 610, it's a gamble that seems to be paying off.

Perhaps Pif only exemplifies the fact that the Washington Avenue corridor a block away has become far more diverse than its red gravy and meatballs reputation would suggest. There are Asian and Mexican kitchens thriving there now, and Pif — which replaced a Vietnamese noodle house — adds yet more spice to the neighborhood's evolving international stew.

Spur-of-the-moment menus can be so challenging that some inconsistency is inevitable. There were no complete misses but there were a few less inspired creations. The bouillabaisse was skimpy at $23, considering that most of Pif's entrees are around $18. The coins of poached foie gras terrine were also underwhelming for the price ($12.50).

And while a few desserts — a rich chocolate galette and a low-rise rustic apple tarte — were worth craving, that course seemed most problematic. The creme brulee was runny. The chocolate pot de creme was lumpy. The crepes themselves were excellent, but their fillings — blueberries with honey one night, chestnut cream another — were unevenly spread throughout.

Likewise, Pif is still coming to grips with the limitations of its casual esprit. The servers often seemed slow and overwhelmed, though they more than made up for it with the sort of quirky, personable repartee that makes a neighborhood bistro a place where real personalities — and good, honest food — can transform an ordinary space into something special.

Still, we had to wait so long to place our orders that when the appetizers finally arrived, my usually dainty guest devoured even the gnarled head of roasted garlic on her plate of escargots as if it were melba toast. (Though after sampling those tender snails, nestled among the sweet whole garlic cloves in Pernod and almond-scented gravy, I must admit that I'd have devoured them all, too, even if they'd been delivered promptly.)

An appetizer of crepinettes was among the most unusual and delicious items, a lightly breaded patty of veal sausage, sauteed in duck fat, that gushed ambrosial juices brushed with tarragon.

Simple salads, such as the beets with Roquefort cheese and the baby spinach with sherry vinaigrette that came piled high with morsels of duck confit, were two more straightforward hits.

Some of the best entrees reaffirmed Ansill's knack for mildly tweaking a classic to make it shine. An excellent sirloin steak came topped with a haystack of fried shoestring potatoes mingled with delicate green beans. Sauteed skate was perfectly rendered with vinegared brown butter and fried capers, its wing of feathery white fish fanned over a mound of basmati rice fragrant with precious saffron.

A thick, tender veal chop arrived on a silky puree of acorn squash. It offered a simple, yet satisfying contrast in textures and flavors that I could easily imagine coming together as Ansill made his morning rounds among the Ninth Street merchants: stop into Esposito's for veal, happen across squash at Scott and Judy's produce stand, and return to Pif around the corner to make a chef's — and diners' — dreams come true.