Taste: Reviews: The Great Pumpkin
After seven years of cooking in someone else’s kitchen, Ian Moroney felt ready for a place of his own. His BYOB-to-be, inspired by the endearing trattorias he’d visited while vacationing in Italy, would serve fresh, simple American food. Moroney wouldn’t promise a life-changing experience at the table — just a solid, satisfying meal at a reasonable price.
That vision was realized in September when Moroney and his significant other, Hillary Bor, created Pumpkin, in the city’s Graduate Hospital neighborhood. Moving into a former deli, they remodeled sparingly, opened quickly, and hoped success would come gradually, giving them time to master the day-to-day details.
Instead, budget-minded Center City residents piled into the 28-seat space from the start, hooked by Moroney’s fondness for rustic foodstuffs such as pheasant, rabbit, and chicken livers, and his penchant for changing the menu daily. The young entrepreneurs have been astounded to find their bare-bones dining room filled to capacity most weeknights, and booked solid weeks in advance for a Saturday night. No one seems to care that the trimmings are, unfortunately, limited to butcher paper on the tables, votive candles, salvaged window frames hung as art, and three small oil paintings of winter squash.
Moroney, who is 32, began cooking for a living in his mid-20s, learning on the job at Little Fish and Azafran. His seafood dishes are deservedly popular, as evidenced by the seared scallops with truffled vinaigrette over asparagus, the grilled whole fish (which may be bronzino, dorade or sea bass), and the saffron-scented Provençal fish stew, which may be strong- or mild-flavored, depending on what deals Moroney’s purveyor is offering on monkfish, striped bass, John Dory, prawns, hake or waluu. Mussels are almost always available; if you’re lucky, they’ll be prepared with vermouth, shallots, and a spoonful of grainy mustard, which transforms the broth into something extraordinary.
Meat dishes are sturdy and sustaining. Grilled bread is thickly spread with chicken liver pâté that gets a little kick from dried chile flakes and anchovy. Rabbit is braised with mirepoix vegetables and tomato, shredded, spooned over crisp polenta squares, and topped with a fried egg. Pheasant served with wilted spinach and hedgehog mushrooms is braised in the style of chicken-in-the-pot. Huge lamb shanks and deliciously winey short ribs are crowd-pleasers, though the polenta under my short ribs was dried-out and crumbly. Best of all is the grilled pork loin, a generous 12-ounce boneless chop enthroned either on a heap of lusty lentils laced with bacon, or on sweet-and-sour red cabbage and sliced fingerling potatoes.
One dish that I loved has caused controversy. Moroney was serving raclette, the French melting cheese, gratin-style over braised endive, or over sliced kielbasa and potatoes, which was even better. Then a customer complained about the smell — which is pronounced, but not unpleasant. Bor, who oversees the dining room with charm and professionalism, persuaded Moroney to stop using raclette. I was sad to hear this, until the chef told me it would return. “They can complain,” he declares.
My complaints about Pumpkin are few. The bony grilled quail, though flavorful, is simply too much work for so little meat. The black olive tapenade that sometimes tops the whole fish was unbearably salty. Clams in the fish stew were gritty. Desserts are hit-and-miss, encompassing a light and airy brioche bread pudding, a lemon tart with a tough shortbread crust, a delightful assorted cookie plate, an unremarkable apple cake, and a silky dark chocolate pot-de-crème.
With no door to separate the kitchen from the dining room, Moroney often glances out to see how his work is being received, a habit he acquired at Little Fish.
“That can be a horrifying thing when you’re a young chef,” he says. “Imagine that one of your customers has just said, ‘Honey, I want a divorce,’ and someone makes a terrible face. And there I am, thinking, ‘Could the crabcake really be that bad?’”
1713 South Street; 215-545-4448
Food : B Service : A Atmosphere : C
AVERAGE COST OF DINNER PER PERSON (with tax and tip) : $43. No credit cards.
FOOD : American with Mediterranean influences.
WINE LIST : BYOB. Bring sancerre or pinot grigio for seafood, Rhône red or barbera for meats.
GET : Gratin of kielbasa, potatoes and raclette; mussels with whole-grain mustard and vermouth; grilled pork loin with lentils and bacon; seared scallops with pureed potatoes and asparagus; Provençal fish stew; cookie plate.
DON’T GET : A table near the door on a cold night.