It didn't take long to learn who'd done that amazing cupcake gelato served at Relish up in Breckenridge (see page X). In fact, had I turned just a few neurons to the matter, I probably would've been able to guess. Because it was Pete Arendsen from Ice Cream Alchemy in Boulder — he of the mad-scientist olive-oil sorbet and foie gras ice cream, the Irish whiskey ice cream and white-truffle-and-chive sorbet.
Over the last year, Arendsen has been kind enough to send quite a few of his more experimental products my way — filling the office freezer with everything from the very weird (Cap'n Crunch and caper ice creams) to the unbelievably delicious (green chile, green tea and the purest, most deeply flavorful vanilla I've ever tasted) and everything in between. He's one of those freak geniuses, a guy who came from a background of nothing in particular (digging ditches, laying cable) and just sort of fell into this one strange thing he does incredibly well. Now ice cream is his obsession, his passion, the outlet for all his energies, a way to challenge people and make them consider what, exactly, they're thinking of when they think of ice cream.
Discovering that Arendsen was responsible for the cupcake gelato also made me realize that I hadn't talked to the guy in quite some time, so I gave him a call. I caught him on the road last Thursday as he made his delivery rounds. "Check it out," he told me. "I was just thinking about you. I've got some new, wild stuff for fall and was thinking maybe I could run it across your palate, you know?"
His new flavors: nutmeg hazelnut ice cream ("Most people automatically put chocolate with hazelnut, but fresh nutmeg goes great," Arendsen says); a Disaronno ice cream with crushed almonds (liquor, wine and beer have always been some of his favorite ingredients to play with); and a bourbon sweet potato that he's got on the books right now for Oceanaire chef Matt Mine. "He paired it with a bourbon pecan pie," Arendsen reported. He's also signed recent deals with Jax in Denver (not for fish ice cream, he assured me), Black Pearl and Encore.
Relish was one of Arendsen's first big clients outside of Boulder, and he's very appreciative of the business. So appreciative that he was happy to supply the dangerously addictive cupcake gelato, which he described as "totally crack ice cream." Arendsen noted that Relish chef/owner Matt Fackler was also bringing in a chocolate merlot ice cream (powerful chocolate flavor overlaid with the grape-y sweetness of a good juice); some maple crème fraîche, which I'd tried with Relish's apple tarte tatin, finding it rich but oddly subtle, a new thing for him (Fackler told me that he had Arendsen increase the maple for his second batch); and a chocolate-peanut-butter-marshmallow ice cream that was like a mash-up — "not chocolate and peanut butter with marshmallow in it," he insisted, but chocolatepeanutbuttermarshmallow all mixed together, so that the ice cream itself tastes like a chocolate/peanut butter marshmallow.
These days, Arendsen's fame is spreading well beyond Colorado. He just did a piece for the Food Network show Unwrapped, where he made a bacon-pineapple ice cream to go with a seared duck breast for host Marc Summers. And when Ed Levine, co-host of Reservations Required and a food writer for the New York Times dining section, recently expressed an interest in Arendsen's product, he sent the archetypal New Yorker a sample of lox ice cream, cream cheese ice cream and everything-bagel ice cream, all layered together spumoni style — which has got to be one of the ballsiest moves I've heard of in a long time.
But Arendsen can afford to be ballsy. He definitely has some kind of direct line to the food gods, imbuing his ice cream, gelato and sorbet with that kind of pixie magic that's granted only to those whose obsession and madness pleases the fickle spirits. And even though the economy might suck right now for almost everyone else in the world, Arendsen has found a weird alternate universe where the collapsing American economy is actually a good thing.
"So many of my clients are up in the mountains," he explained. And you know who else is up in the mountains? European tourists, currently riding high on the power of the euro against the dollar: "Right now the euro is so strong the economy actually swings in the other direction for us."
The bottom of the Ocean: On September 29, after I broke the news on Cafe Society that Jim Sullivan had abruptly closed Nine75 and Ocean, the last two restaurants in his onetime empire, my phone started ringing off the hook. Former employees and suppliers wanted to tell their version of what had led to the closures - and it wasn't just the bad economy, as Sullivan had told me. Few of these callers were willing to let their names be used in print; Jared Boller, the former lead bartender at Ocean, was the rare exception.
Boller had only been back on duty behind the bar for five days when Black Monday rolled around. Before that, he'd been in New Zealand, of all places, representing Ocean, Denver and the Central United States in the Cocktail World Cup, where he and his team placed second in the world in the mixology competition. On Saturday, September 27, Boller told me, a note was posted at Ocean announcing a staff meeting on Monday afternoon. The smart, veteran employees? They realized this was it, and immediately started putting their resumés together. But the rest walked in knowing nothing. "There was a rumor floating around that it was closing," Boller told me. "Everyone was kind of expecting it, but there was no confirmation. Everyone was more shocked than anything." Still, there had been warning signs: millions of dollars in furniture, 22 managers in two years — not exactly the signs of a healthy business.
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The only worse signs? The ones taped to the front doors of both locations right now that say "Closed."
Boller seemed more optimistic than many of the now-ex-employees I talked to (you can read some of their accounts on my October 3 From the Gut post). "It employed me," he said of Ocean. "I'm happy it employed me. And I did what I could." Now he's updating his own resumé and fielding calls about bartending gigs, future competitions and charity events. "Denver's not very serious about the cocktail yet," he told me, "but it's going to be a gold mine."
Leftovers: Over at 2911 West 38th Avenue, the venture that started as Gelman's Gourmet Market has undergone its own transformation, reopening last month as Gelman's Restaurant & Bar, with a more sophisticated dining room, a full bar and, most important, a serious, heavyweight chef on the books. Thomas Connolly, who's standing both as executive chef and partner, comes to Denver by way of food's golden coast: San Francisco and San Jose, with a stop in Hawaii. Connolly has completely overhauled the Gelman's board, going decidedly Froggish and turning the place from an unexceptional half-breed deli/restaurant (with a focus on overdone New American cuisine and New England regional) into a real American brasserie with duck-liver mousse pâté, duck rillette, butternut squash risotto, sea bass bourride and Brussels sprouts with bacon.
I reviewed the original Gelman's in October 2006 and didn't like it. Back then, virtually every sin of the over-confident and under-talented culinarian was being committed with frightening regularity in both the kitchen and the dining room: deconstructions and fusions, exclamation points of Asiana plugged into American classics like fried chicken, and worse. But now, under the steadying hand of a brasserie-bred chef, I'm hoping that the kitchen can turn it around. And for the first time, I'm actually looking forward to a meal at Gelman's — even if Drew Bixby already beat me to it. You can read his assessment in this issue's Drunk of the Week.