Using liquid nitrogen, chef Ian Kleinman makes magical sorbets at O's Steak & Seafood ("Mr. Wizard," October 25). But the magical ice cream served at O's comes from Peter Arendsen, the owner and only ice cream-maker at Ice Cream Alchemy up in Boulder — a guy who'd done everything from digging ditches to laying cable before deciding that if he wasn't going to be able to find a job he liked to do every day, he'd make a job he liked to do every day.
Remembers Arendsen: "My wife basically just asked me, 'What do you want to do?' Making ice cream was the first thing that came to my mind." And not just ice cream, but really good ice cream; ice cream made out of the stuff it's supposed to taste like and nothing else — even when that stuff is white truffle, gorgonzola or sweet potatoes.
I first heard about Arendsen from Biker Jim Pittenger, who uses Alchemy's Costa Rican coffee ice cream in the construction of the Jittershake at Biker Jim's Freakishly Small Concession Stand in Skyline Park. Biker Jim told me I had to talk to Arendsen because, in addition to making great coffee ice cream and some nice cherry, chocolate and chipotle, the man had actually turned bacon into ice cream. "It's bacon ice cream, dude," Jim said. "You gotta try it."
And he was right, so I called Arendsen, who offered to bring some samples by the office one afternoon, since Alchemy has no retail arm and does all its business straight through the kitchens of dozens of area restaurants, including O's. I expected Arendsen to bring two or three or maybe four of his best concoctions. Instead, he showed up with an enormous freezer bag filled with about thirty — and I tasted every single one. Some I devoured completely. The avocado-lime version was amazing, somehow trapping the smooth fattiness of avocado in ice and capping it with the citric sweetness of fresh lime juice. I'd sit in front of my TV and eat it every night if I could. The bourbon, rose and ginger-peach were all great; the mint chocolate (generally my least favorite flavor) made with nothing but ice cream base, dark chocolate and fresh spearmint leaves (no oils, no chemicals) tasted as clean and fresh as normal mint chocolate ice cream tastes heavy and thick.
The gorgonzola and chive was like a complete rewiring of my mouth for tasting the simplicity and utility of a savory dessert; the olive oil was just odd. Even the Thai chile ice cream was delicious, stranger than strange but so perfectly balanced that I wanted to put some in soup just to see what happened. The green chile ice cream, made with ice cream base and roasted Hatch chiles, came off like any other unusual fruit ice cream — sweet, vaguely vegetable-y, with a dim background heat smothered under the coldness of the cream.
But then there was the foie gras ice cream, which tasted like cold liver mousse — not the greatest flavor in the world. By Arendsen's own admission, this one's still a work in progress, since all the flavor in foie comes from the fat, but adding too much fat to ice cream will cause it to separate and freeze badly. And finally, I tried the bacon ice cream, which, all things considered, was one of the less interesting flavors Arendsen carried in his magical bag of tricks. Like so many of his more unusual flavors, the bacon was originally done for a chef experimenting with savory desserts, and it was fatty, meaty, indefinably strange. To chase it, Arendsen suggested a nice, creamy stout ice cream.
Beer and bacon... Credit where it's due, the man really knows how to pair two great tastes.
Big night: After my review of O's, Ian Kleinman called to share the effect of my glimpse into his freaky culinary weirdness. That Friday, he told me, he'd done as many of his molecular-gastronomy tasting menus than he'd done in the entire previous week — more than a hundred courses of sous-vide-this and gelatinized-that and Dippin' Dots made out of yuzu. He got his ass kicked, but he loved it and had even more on the books for Saturday night. The only thing that seemed to bug him was that he had to repeat the cheese course I'd raved about — the Point Reyes blue with Alsatian grape caviar, whole grapes, still on the vine and jacketed in peanut butter, balsamic vinegar whipped into a stabilized foam and caramelized with a blowtorch — because people wanted the same paradigm-shifting experience I'd had, that sensation of hundreds of years of food tradition being yanked out from under me like a rug. And Kleinman hates to repeat himself.
He got over it, of course: Money's money. The rest of the menu, though, was all new and, if anything, even wilder than the one I'd watched him prepare. A glued-together, sideways Napoleon of shrimp, scallop and salmon topped with fluffed curry. Strawberry noodles with chocolate and black-truffle whipped cream and blueberries crusted inside a shell of Pop Rocks. Homemade black-walnut bubble gum. And while he was putting that together, he was also creating showpieces for a magazine spread and demo-ing his liquid nitrogen tricks for a bunch of middle-schoolers. His thinking on showing kids how to make instant sorbets with dangerous chemicals: If they're introduced to this sort of magic early, not only will they be less intimidated when they see it on a menu when they're older (by which time, cutting-edge chefs will no doubt be making moon-rock soufflés and cooking with anti-gravity potatoes), but they might also be the people cooking it. "I think I convinced a couple of these kids to become chefs," he said.
Kleinman and his crew rocked it through the weekend, then shifted gears and switched up the menu again last Monday: butter-poached tempura lobster with a corn-tomatillo gelée and yuzu, wasabi and miso Dippin' Dots; Merlot caviar with frozen thyme; sous-vide portabella and veal with melted tomato, brie and beet ribbon; an olive-oil cake with "dancing nutmeg." He doubled his numbers again. And when I talked to him late last week, he was staring down a Thursday-night book with a ten-top all wanting freak cuisine, another eight-top after the same, more twos and fours.
More hover-potatoes and dancing nutmeg for everyone.
Leftovers: Over at the Lowenstein project (2526 East Colfax Avenue) that houses the Tattered Cover and Twist & Shout, Udi's has pulled out, and Black Pearl doesn't look anywhere close to opening its second location there, but you can still get good food. That's because Neighborhood Flix, the independent theater that just opened, has a gourmet kitchen attached. And the chef is James Mazzio — former Best New Chef in the world (or close enough) for his work at 15 Degrees, the guy who brought Via back from the brink last year ("On the Block," April 5, 2007).
"I absolutely loved the idea of taking movie food to the next level," Mazzio said when I got him on the phone, pre-service, in the Via kitchen last Thursday afternoon. "It's what our parents told us never to do, man: playing with your food." Mazzio is technically on board as a consultant, as he once was at Green Fine Salad Company, but he's not a guy who stands back, tosses out a few ideas and then collects a check. In his words, "I did what I always do — immerse myself in the coolest thing I think Denver needs."
He traveled. He ate at a lot of really crappy movie theater-restaurant combos where corn dogs and fries are considered revolutionary cuisine. And then he wrote a menu filled with the things he likes to eat when watching movies. "We're still trying to figure out some of the stuff," he told me, "but I basically took comfort foods and put them in, like, how I would cook at home." Comfort foods like "Crock Pot" pot roast with braised onions and carrots, Vietnamese egg rolls and chicken satay, Louisiana gumbo with dirty rice, sweet-potato fries with a ginger-sesame gastrique. "That one, I can't believe it," Mazzio admitted. "That's outselling popcorn." And not by a little. Two to one, some nights.
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Mazzio is still smoothing operations at Flix, but he's already thinking about brightening up the winter menu at Via, maybe tinkering a little with the menu at Cucina Colore, the Cherry Creek restaurant that shares owners with Via and could use the attention ("The Conversation," August 23). He's busy, and he won't be slowing down anytime soon.
Even if he is just a consultant.
There's news at the 21-year-old Strings (1700 Humboldt Street). Noel Cunningham has brought in chef Aaron Whitcomb (ex of Adega and Table 6), who returned to Denver after a year in Chicago, where he worked under Grant Achatz at Alinea (very cool), then opened Room 21 as executive chef — a spot he bailed out of recently, and rather publicly. Whitcomb's also on the rolls at Mise en Place cooking school, doing a winter vegetables class, and he'll be writing a new winter menu for Strings (I'm guessing it's gonna be heavy on the vegetables), as well as a New Year's Eve menu.