One of the greatest spells a new neighborhood restaurant can weave is the ability to help change the perception of a city block.
Where once this stretch of South Street east of Graduate Hospital was a grim string of vacant storefronts, failed bakeries, check-cashing shops, and a cheap pizzeria, the arrival of a gem like Pumpkin has suddenly brought light.
Candlelight beams through the cheery orange logo in its storefront window like a jack o'lantern ablaze. And as wine-toting customers eagerly stream into the celery-colored shoebox of its tiny dining room, it is almost impossible to fathom why it took so long for this struggling commercial strip - so close to restaurant-rich Rittenhouse Square - to land a legitimate dining draw.
It helps when a place has Pumpkin's tasty charms. Owner Hillary Bor has managed with relatively little to transform a long-defunct deli into a room of considerable appeal. Votives flicker atop railroad ties turned into shelves. Salvaged antique window frames and shutters on the walls add the suggestion of a wider world peeking into the cloistered space. And gauzy orange curtains soften the square room, near a banquette snuggled into a nook, and beside the open kitchen, where Bor's boyfriend, chef Ian Moroney, toils away.
At only 28 seats, it's hard to believe Pumpkin is actually bigger than Moroney's last work address, Little Fish, the 23-seat Bella Vista seafooder owned by his father, John. It was at Little Fish three years ago where Ian first charmed Bor (who happened to be walking by) with a taste of his clam chowder. They've been calling each other "Pumpkin" ever since.
Moroney is a classic case of the talented self-taught chef still at the beginnings of his own exploration, full of inspiration yet occasionally short on the resources to see them through. But what he lacks in technique and consistency, he more than compensates for with ambition and curiosity and an instinct for satisfying flavors.
The cooking here reminds me of Pif in its early days - affordable Mediterranean-inspired fare that changes daily, with simple dishes that stand on good ingredients and the whim of clever combinations.
Seared scallops over lentils, for example, get a surprise boost from finely diced beets, which add new shades of texture and sweetness to a familiar dish. Balsamiclike musto cotto tickles the nose with a warm sweet-and-sour tang when splashed over a hot mound of bitter radicchio gratineed with salty fontina cheese. And a bistro classic such as potato-leek soup bounds from the mundane to the exciting when garnished with a thick morsel of finnan haddie.
I have no idea why that soup was delivered nearly 10 minutes after the rest of the table had been served its starters. Pumpkin's service, while warm and outgoing and well-versed on the menu, had small pacing problems throughout my visits.
Moroney's cooking also had a few slips. An appetizer of grilled quail over citrus salad was so undercooked it was still chirping. A bruschetta topped with intriguing Italian-styled chopped chicken livers was overwhelmed by runaway spice. A first-visit scallop appetizer was drowned out by escarole soaked in an overly assertive vinaigrette.
These were minor slips, though, for a kitchen that delivered elemental satisfaction with admirable aplomb. Braised veal cheeks were one unlikely star, posed in brothy sauce like nuggets of impossibly tender meat around a cream-layered pillar of potato gratin. Expertly grilled pork chops were served two ways, over bacony lentils with mustard cream, and with a mound of sweet and sour red cabbage with roasted fingerling potatoes. I also loved the simply prepared grilled hanger steak, with its rich red-wine gravy and homemade frites, and the medallions of tender veal loin that came showered with buttered chanterelles.
Given Moroney's Little Fish history, it's no surprise that seafood here is ably done, though he'd benefit from toning down the scorching heat that marked a little too much char on the skin of my whole fish. The bronzino was otherwise delicious, its moist white meat filleted from the bones in the kitchen, and placed over braised fennel flavored with a Moroccan touch of preserved lemons and olive tapenade. At an earlier dinner, the same braised fennel made the perfect background to a thick steak of grilled swordfish.
There is clearly room in Pumpkin's kitchen for growth, not necessarily for better ideas, but for Moroney to elaborate and layer the ones he has. With more help, he could resume making the fresh pappardelle pasta with minted lamb ragout that teased his early menus before the overdrive reality of Pumpkin's busy debut set in.
That, of course, is both the charm and curse of Philly's miniature-restaurant boom. The experiences are intensely personal, but also often limited by sheer physical constraints.
Considering there is not a pastry chef, either, Moroney acquits himself well with a satisfying mix of brought-in and house-made confections. A beautifully made pear crisp comes topped with a melting scoop of sublime chestnut gelato from Capo Giro. Blackberry linzer tart is a lattice-topped round of buttery pastry and dark jammy fruit. Best of all, though, is the chocolate pot de creme. The dark pudding is so stunningly creamy and bittersweet rich, that the whole evening suddenly slows for a moment as each spoonful takes its time to melt.
Once my spoon hits bottom, it's usually well past time to pay the bill, and since Pumpkin is cash only, that also means a quick jaunt to the convenient ATM next door. I'm not sure I ever would have stopped for cash after dark on this once deserted stretch of South. It's probably still not a good idea. But there is something about Pumpkin's cheery orange glow that casts a hopeful spell.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.