Sometimes it's the small moments that leave the most indelible impressions, and Arthur and I were living one of those at a sidewalk table in front of Pub & Kitchen on a recent spring evening.
The air was so mild, it was like a long-awaited sigh after the brutal winter. The setting sun warmed the blossoming cherry trees around us with a gilded perfume.
I don't recall what we chatted about at this rare father-son dinner, but the mood was fun and seamless. Because on the table before us came something I'd not experienced from Pub & Kitchen before: a parade of magnetic dishes that brought one pleasant surprise after the other - including the appreciation of my 12-year-old son. Salad? He devoured a plate of baby gem lettuce, the little ribs lightly charred from the grill but still juicy, scattered with smoked Moody Blue cheese, shaved radishes, and the sweet-tart bursts of ginger-pickled yellow husk cherries. We battled forks over the orecchiette house-made from rye flour and caraway, tossed in creamy ricotta with broccoli rabe and a pistachio-mint salsa verde.
Normally a cautious eater, Arthur even nibbled a ruby-red morsel of venison tartare, tiny sunflower seeds adding a nutty snap to the soft meat, with creamy dabs of ivory onion soubise and the sweet crunch of fried sunchokes when . . . .
"You guys better run for it!"
A friend hustling by with her dog, Moose, broke our reverie just as a black cloud suddenly blotted out the sky. A gust of wind whirled cherry blossoms into a blizzard of pink petals. And as the sky broke into torrential rain, our kind and prescient server Beth Enloe magically appeared to whisk us safely inside to an available booth.
Is this where the spell ended? Not at all.
The feeling inside was just as I remembered Pub & Kitchen, a corner fixture in the neighborhood formerly known as Graduate Hospital, a dark and boisterous tavern I've always liked - but never quite loved.
Of course, owners Dan Clark and Ed Hackett gave their six-year-old bar a fresh makeover last year. But the P&K, already the most polished of Philly's otherwise edgy class of gastropubs, simply added another coat of handsome sheen, with tufted leather and antiquey fixtures (à la Restoration Hardware) for a coiffed clientele of Penn students and young couples on date night who looked to have stepped off the pages of a J. Crew catalog.
What struck me as different - and the impetus for a re-review - is that over the course of several visits, current chef Eli Collins' cooking demanded my attention.
A perfectly seared fillet of fluke came over a sweet dice of yellow rutabaga with lentils and whole-grain-mustard crème fraîche. Tiny, tender calamari were stuffed like sausages with spicy house-made chorizo over a milky almond-anchovy puree with grilled celery stalks that had been tanged with lemon. Giant head-on prawns, brushed with a tangy spring barbecue glaze of rhubarb and aji amarillo chiles, paired with toasted farro and a vivid green puree that also snapped with whole fresh sweet peas.
The occasional pasta specials - a toothy pasta alla chitarra topped with an egg yolk and house-made bacon for a carbonara touched with cream; a bowl of silky hand-cut pappardelle in chicken soup enriched with schmaltz and subtle layers of toasted rosemary and Meyer lemon - would be worth the trip themselves. If only they lasted long enough.
But the Scranton-born Collins, 35, a Gayle and Supper alum who moved back to Philly last spring after four years in New York at Daniel Boulud's DBGB (where he finished as chef de cuisine,) has a short attention span for his menu creations, driven by a dedication to scratch-built elements and seasonality.
His fresh-baked round of soft whiskey-sage bread isn't just clever, with a flour-dusted silhouette of the mythical "Pabbit" romping atop the crust. It also brought my favorite version of this spring's ramps - buzzed into a bright green smear of butter scattered with crunchy-sweet nuggets of bee pollen and Aleppo pepper-flake heat.
So much ambition is apparent in the cooking here now, I'd argue that P&K, which debuted as an ode to updated pub fare (pickled herring; oversize burgers; fish & chips), has now become, at its mealtime hours at least, more of a restaurant with a bar than a gastropub.
The bar itself is solid, with a concise, well-rounded list now more firmly embracing craft beers than in its early Miller Lite days (try the sour Flemish Cuvée des Jacobins Rouge on draft), with well-made cocktails that graduated from a previous baroque phase for simpler twists on classics, and better-than-average wines from value corners of Europe (Cahors, Loire, Slovenia.)
And Collins, too, understands that for longtime regulars, the P&K will always need to offer some bar-food staples with a twist. The wings are smoked before being slicked with a triple-chile glaze. The hand-cut fries are reliably crispy, with an addictive roasted-garlic aioli dip. And the pub's longtime insistence on big, showy burgers - I never liked the Windsor as much as most - has thankfully been swapped for a retro double stack of thinner rounds. The house-ground chuck and dry-aged brisket gushed on the plate when I took a bite. Too bad they were oversalted - one of the few flaws in my meals.
But I'd come back for so many other highlights first. Like the oysters on the half-shell, whose melony, mild Evening Coves and briny Washburn Islands were preferable to the deep-fried oyster sliders (too bready.) Or a perfect hunk of fresh cod with blistered shishito peppers over Carolina rice ringed by oniony green ramp jus. Or a luxurious disc of creamy foie gras torchon with rhubarb-red onion compote. Or how about Collins' rabbit meatballs over Castle Valley Mills polenta? These tender sage- and butter-roasted balls, topped with the contrast of shaved radiccho-green olive salad and splash of rabbit stock, were a hearty but thoughtful comfort-food update for $18.
Collins knocks out a worthwhile brunch, too, from a double-patty stack of tangy house sausage over biscuits to poached eggs glazed in harissa hollandaise over grits, and a thick whole-wheat French toast that was so memorably moist from its night-long soak in crème brûlée batter that we ate it for dessert.
Collins served other sweets at dinner that also impressed. I loved the just-barely-set cardamom panna cotta ringed by golden apricot-saffron jam. But it was the clever baba I couldn't refuse. The yeast cake wasn't simply soaked in rum - it basked in a gingery rum syrup inspired by a Dark 'n' Stormy, a cocktail that's long been one of the bar's most popular drinks. Pub & Kitchen's past and future came together in one sweet and boozy bite, a perfect harmony in that one small moment that tasted like a bright future.
Chef Eli Collins discusses Pub & Kitchen at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Caleb's American Kitchen in New Hope.