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May 18, 2012

Hunger Strike | Good doggy

Black tie? Check. Black Maybach? Check. Black Dog Gelato? Conspicuously absent from Jay-Z and Kanye’s list of excellent black objects. Mere coincidence, or measured conspiracy?

Do they think you are unfit to have a Blueberry French Toast for the scumbags? Or is it that you have no place big pimpin’, eating that Goat Cheese gelato? Maybe they just don’t want people to know about some of the best damn Strawberry Champagne sorbet you ever had in your life. Well, if I were a famous and fabulously wealthy hip-hop icon, keeping this place under wraps (and out of my raps) is exactly what I would do. Then again, as an amateur food writer, keeping secrets from the public is not exactly a good idea. In fact, nothing should stop me, or you, from living that sweet gelato thug life.

Believe me, this was a dark secret churned vigorously within the gelato maker of my soul. Many, many months of conscientiously objecting to desserts at restaurants—mind you, neglecting my “professional” responsibilities—just so I could savor the flavor of this post-meal indulgence. This is no simple trip to a mom-and-pop ice cream shop. Something about that manipulation of fat and sugar ratios makes gelato somehow that much more conducive to interesting and creative flavors.  Nor is this the fulfillment of some lingering childhood nostalgia—Mr. Softee can go air pollute some other corner of the city. Instead—domo arigato Mr. Gelato. And damn good gelato at that; a quality original in a world inhabited by the gelato equivalent of Fauxlex’s and Couch handbags. In other words, once you go Black Dog you can’t go back, dawg.

If you’ve seen or heard the name before it’s probably because Black Dog supplies some of the best restaurants in Chicago, that extra touch that brings their dessert menus to life. Whether it’s Japanese (Honeydew Sake sorbet for Arami); elevated diner fare (Root Beer Floats at Au Cheval); or whatever trendy genre Girl and the Goat subscribes to (Blueucheese gelato). You only need ask, and Black Dog shall deliver. Though, at their brick and mortar, in Ukrainian Village, a small (2 flavors) or large cup (3 flavors) will do just fine.  Pints are also available, but best saved for the comfort of your Sex and the City marathon, mourning the tragic loss of your goldfish, or whenever it is deemed socially acceptable to use a pint container as a serving vessel.  And while this may seem insignificant, I do have to add a comment on the importance of their “tasting” samples. At most places asking to try a flavor results in a microscopic swab of gelato that involves CSI-level trace analysis to discern, confirming above all else that the spoon is made of some plastic composite; at Black Dog, you get a nice, heavy-handed mound of gelato that actually helps to reveal the nuances and inform your final decision. And no one will judge you for multiple tastings. And multiples of multiples.

But now I stand before you at a critical juncture; a spoon in the road if you will. I could literally fill up the rest of this review with nothing more than a giant list of flavors I have sampled, bringing back many a sweet, sweet memory in the process. Over 40 to be precise. And while you may be inclined to call me lazy, I assure you I would be doing the entire food world a huge favor by doing so. Good luck finding anything online beyond recurring shout-outs to Salted Peanut, Strawberry Balsamic, and Mexican Chocolate (all of which are ah-mazing by the way).  In fact, in my hands, I hold what may be the most comprehensive compendium of their flavors available online; as an esteemed former governor so eloquently said, “I’ve got this thing, and it’s fucking golden.” So I’m not just gonna give it up for nuthin’. I will, however, leave you with some impressions.

Generally speaking, there are two sides to the Black Dog tale. On the one hand, we find the classic, and even somewhat mundane flavors expected from gelato. However, they are by no means designed purely to take up space. Salted Caramel, Pumpkin, Hazelnut, Espresso, Pistachio, even plain ol’ Dark Chocolate are all done with aplomb. The name matches the flavor; which means that Black Dog is not afraid to sacrifice sweetness in the name of integrity, such as the underlying savoriness or saltiness that naturally occurs in a caramel or brown sugar, or the bitter bite of coffee, certain nuts, and truly dark chocolate chips. Take Mint Oreo (or Thin Mint) for example—the bane of virtually any gelato/ice cream enthusiast—which somehow manages to be the perfect mix of refreshment, coolness and crunch instead of the sanitary sterility of Aquafresh.

But Black Dog is also an exotic laboratory of “experimental” concoctions waiting to be tested on the unsuspecting public. And being a guinea pig never felt so good. Oh you mean like Chubby Hubby or Cherry Garcia? Get out of here and never look in my general direction. No, these gelati and sorbets are the perfect mix of campy and fancy, kitsch and class: Toasted White Sesame, Apple Cider Sorbet, Brown Butter Bourbon (like a glazed donut), Lemon Ginger (cheesecake anyone?), Ricotta Honey Apricot, Three Floyd’s Malt (we ’bout to get drunk off gelato), Pineapple Basil, Cinnamon Maple Pecan (for the few of us fortunate enough to have enjoyed French Toast Crunch cereal), Coconut Curry, Sweet Corn Lavender, Kiwi Honeydew (cool as a cucumber), Rum Raisin, Blackberry Cabernet (this is, literally, the distilled essence of a bottle of wine), and—probably my all time favorite—Orange Licorice with Dark Chocolate (which, if I closed my eyes and dreamed real hard, was a chocolate orange candy ball sans stupid choking hazard toy).

The only downside to Black Dog is the incredible ease with which it can induce food-snobbism. It’s a common phenomenon, really—you eat something so fucking good that it puts all other imitators to shame. The kind of food that puts you off eating anything inferior lest you sully your mouth or mind, or both. And Black Dog can certainly do that upon first lick (seriously, I dare you to try Café 53 and not assault the staff for their affront against the institution of gelato). Fortunately, it is also the great equalizer; a place where both pauper and prince can indulge their inner fat kid. Luxury and quality are not defined by inflated costs, so you can come here after a tie-and-jacket tasting “collection”, or a complete and utter grease fest at a Korean fried chicken joint. Why eat dessert off a table (*cough* Alinea) when it can be had in the convenience of a cup?

So, ice cream, froyo, soft serve, y’all best watch your respective thrones. While gelato may never hold the mass appeal of its cold colleagues, such crass commercialization would bring great dishonor upon any doj—sorry—gelateria. Its true calling resides in a higher realm of frozen delight. Crappy ice cream can take cover under a canopy of crushed M&Ms and hot fudge rivers; froyo can appeal to probiotics and Gossip Girl to justify its blandness; soft serve belongs in nursing homes. But when you are the true crème de la crème, you have a higher standard to uphold. Without getting too food-osophical on ya, there’s definitely a certain degree of craftsmanship and, dare I say, art that goes into making gelato: Be it the lusciously smooth texture, the pure and unadulterated clarity of flavor, the ingenuity of complementary ingredients or, better yet, all of the above. Perfection can be a heavy and burdensome crown but, damn, Black Dog wears it well.

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