Chicagoans tend get their summer ice cream fix by heading to old-fashioned ice cream parlors and new-wave gelaterias, but some of the best ice cream in the city is being made in upscale restaurants and hotels. The idea of going to a posh spot just for dessert may sound intimidating, but with a little attention to timing, it's seldom a problem--and some restaurants are encouraging it. Here are a handful of possibilities, starting with a couple that are brand-new.
You can indulge every childhood ice cream fantasy in grown-up surroundings at the Ice Cream Social held almost every Thursday from 7:30 till 11 PM in the lobby restaurant at the Peninsula Chicago hotel (108 E. Superior, 312-573-6760) through October. Whet your palate with mini ice cream sandwiches, cake rolls, mousse bombes, and milk shakes from the buffet, set up unobtrusively in a corner. Then ask the attendant to whip up whatever creations strike your fancy from three sorbets and six ice creams, Asian bananas, house-made marshmallows, baby brownies, crumbled Heath bars, colored sprinkles, nuts, hot fudge, caramel sauce, soft whipped cream, and a whole lot more.
An intense chocolate sorbet (70 pecent dark) was my favorite, followed by a bright mango-buttermilk ice cream. The other flavors are mostly standards (vanilla, chocolate, caramel), but inquire if there's anything special in the kitchen. Rows of tiny ice cream cones (sugar and cake) wait to be filled next to stands of lollipops, chocolate-dipped strawberries, chocolate chip cookies, and chocolate-covered almonds. Sundaes are assembled in martini glasses using little scoops, so it's easy to eat several.
On my visit, business was slow, and the otherwise capable staff didn't quite have a handle on ice cream service. But I did get a window table overlooking the lush terrace and cityscape. The cost is $19.50, with unlimited coffee, espresso, or cappuccino--a deal given that cappuccino is $5 a la carte. A three-course dinner including all the ice cream is $58, but why bother?
The Fairmont Chicago (200 N. Columbus, 312-565-8000) and the chefs at Aria have come up with a novel ice cream promotion: invent your own flavor and a pint ($12) is ready 48 hours later. Unfortunately, the program isn't well publicized within the hotel, so when I called (anonymously) to try it out, no one seemed to know what I was talking about. I finally got the kitchen and, after a consultation, ordered two flavors: a mango-coconut with macadamia-nut-butter swirl and candied pineapple and papaya and a mocha with espresso swirl and chocolate-coated truffles. Both were well balanced and creamy, but the swirl disappeared into the mocha and turned into tasty bits of toasted macadamia brittle in the mango-coconut. Lisa Wilson, the pastry chef responsible for the ice cream, uses a Pacojet, which works like the reverse of a traditional ice cream maker. The ice cream base (or fruit for sorbet) is frozen, then the machine's high-speed blade whirs down through it and back up, transforming the mixture into ice cream. Wilson says the only flavor of 30-some so far that's been hard for her to stomach was avocado with a side of salsa. To order, call executive chef Noah Bekofsky at 312-565-6612; for pickup, bring your own cooler.
The Dunking Doughnut & Ice Cream Sundae Menu, available through Labor Day in the Cafe or Greenhouse at the Ritz-Carlton Chicago (160 E. Pearson, 312-573-5154), is limited to half a dozen items, but I'd return for the espresso and biscotti sundae ($12), actually a parfait with house-made almond gelato, espresso ice cream, and butterscotch layered into a tall flared glass and finished with whipped cream and two pistachio biscotti. The lemon meringue sundae ($12), featuring lemon yogurt ice cream, was very refreshing but almost too much of a good thing. Slow, inattentive service was a drawback, but I like the Greenhouse setting, with its mosaic-tile floors, potted greenery, rock gardens, and city views.
Good views from romantic alcove tables are among the draws at Cafe Spiaggia (980 N. Michigan, 312-280-2750), where 13 gelati and 10 sorbetti a day are the rule. Little metal cups with three flavors sell for $7, but I saw a platter go to one table with all 23 (not quite 31, but close!). Of the dozen I tried, the standouts were the full-bodied espresso, the rich hazelnut, a deep chocolate, and a seasonal special, complex, sweet-tart honey-goat cheese. The sorbetti weren't quite as good, except for the jewel-toned mixed berry and the earthy, bright green basil. Reservations recommended.
It's not all about the ice cream at Hot Chocolate (1747 N. Damen, 773-489-1747): it's also about the cookies. Order a flight of up to eight of the dozen or more ice creams and sorbets ($2 each for golf-ball-size scoops), and they arrive in little square cups on a rectangular tray decorated with house-made brownie bites, sugar cookies, gingersnaps, and such. Salted caramel is one of the most popular ice cream flavors, though I preferred the banana because, unlike most versions, it didn't taste like overripe fruit. Most offbeat: slightly fizzy Kriek, made with Belgian cherry lambic. Best sorbet: the creamy coconut, and next was the tart pineapple, which the friendly waiter described as "like a bite of sunshine." Some ice creams are components in composed desserts and not available on the flights, alas. One quibble: the spoons are too big, causing the softening ice cream to overflow the cups when I dug in. Reservations are accepted, but I got a table right away at 6:45 PM on a Saturday, and you also can order ice cream from a seat at the bar. --Anne Spiselman
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Rob Warner (center and right).