Beating the sweltering summer heat with a cold scoop of ice cream is an annual rite; we all have memories of licking away at our favorite flavor while the sticky, sugary substance melts and drips onto our hands. Fruity ice cream, sorbet and gelato can be refreshing on a hot day, but many flavors are just too cloyingly sweet for the hottest weather. That's why chefs are turning toward more savory concoctions to balance summer dishes on Denver menus or just provide a little relief for more mature tastes.
At Cornicello Gelato, one of fifteen food and booze stations inside the new Denver Milk Market downtown, restaurateur Frank Bonanno offers plenty of kid-friendly flavors in vivid shades of blue and pink. But adults with sophisticated palates will be drawn to something a little more subtle. A single scoop of red wine and goat cheese gelato makes for an elegant and intriguing ending to a meal procured at one of Milk Market's other vendors. While the base of the gelato is nicely sweet, the deep flavor of the wine and the subtle tang of the cheese combine for a très chic after-dinner pairing reminiscent of your last French vacation.
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At a recent tasting dinner at Departure (at 249 Columbine Street in Cherry Creek) to celebrate Slow Food Nations, chef Gregory Gourdet turned to his vegetable garden for inspiration, presenting a delicate scoop of sorbet flavored with tomato leaves alongside a savory/sweet tart. The entire dessert was a celebration of tomatoes and cherries, but the sorbet itself held the earthy, funky essence of the tomato leaf that's seldom found even on dinner plates, much less dessert. For those who grow their own tomatoes, the almost indescribable smell of tomato leaves that wafts up as you harvest the ripe, red fruit seems an unlikely element for a sorbet, but Gourdet made it work. This was a one-time offering, but Departure's summer dessert menu holds other surprises: lemongrass ice paired with strawberry, rhubarb and Thai basil, and yuzu sherbet accompanying a coconut-berry tart, for example. Loads of sugar can dull the tastebuds and feel heavy in hot weather, so Gourdet turns to citrus and tropical flavors — even those not commonly associated with dessert — to keep things fresh and bright.
Chef Linda Hampsten Fox goes furthest out on the savory limb with two different gelato scoops on her summer dinner menu at The Bindery (1817 Central Street). Returning for another season is a summer version of the chef's smoked pecan and rabbit pie topped with mustard gelato. If that sounds a little weird for you, consider that honey and mustard are a classic combo, so a slightly sweet and creamy mustard gelato is really just a chilled version of something familiar. And a new dish will debut on Tuesday, July 24: a cool ajo blanco soup. This is a traditional Spanish white gazpacho made with garlic and almonds, but Hampsten Fox serves the soup with an almond brioche crumble and a scoop of tahini gelato. The nuttiness of the sesame seeds and almonds add depth to the creamy soup, which is smooth and rich despite being dairy-free. The dish is a tone poem of soft tan colors and Mediterranean flavors, with only a few bright drops of olive oil as punctuation marks.
Ice cream is a year-round treat in Colorado, but you can keep your gooey Rocky Road, butter pecan and double-fudge chunk for another day; this summer, light and savory is the way to go.