No plain vanilla here

Forget waffle cones and parfait glasses. Ice cream gets served these days atop hunks of pork belly. Amid pools of gazpacho. Alongside chicken Parm.

The frozen confection has gone over to the dinner side of the menu, with savory tastes like tomato-fennel and ranch. Even when the ice cream is for dessert, the flavors sometimes sound like supper: olive oil, beet, basil, pink peppercorn, cucumber, corn, red cabbage.

For traditional ice-cream lovers content with good old vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, just the thought of these out-there frosty treats is enough to bring on brain freeze.

"That's one of the most polarizing things on the menu," Jack's Bistro manager Christie Smertycha said. "It's strange. It's floral. It's spicy. It's savory. Some people are like, 'Oh, my gosh, I just don't know why I can't stop eating it.' Other people are, 'It's too weird for me. I'm glad I tried it, but no thanks.'"

Smertycha was referring to the Canton restaurant's pink-peppercorn-lavender ice cream. But she could have just as easily been talking about the ranch dressing ice cream that crowns Jack's pork belly ranch BLT. Or the buttered popcorn ice cream that adds a savory note to a "deconstructed kettle corn" dessert.

Oddball ice creams might be expected in a restaurant like Jack's, a place that embraces culinary whimsy to the point of incorporating Pop Rocks into cocktails and a tuna entree.

It's not even a shocker to find them at Volt, the acclaimed Frederick restaurant where chef Bryan Voltaggio's molecular gastronomy leads to some outrageous culinary flights of fancy. Like the tomato-fennel "dipping dots" — little ice cream pebbles — in his chicken Parmesan. Or the heirloom tomato "dipping dots" he served with rock shrimp ceviche while playing celebrity ballpark concessionaire at Frederick's Harry Grove Baseball Stadium last month.

But unusual ice creams are also showing up in restaurants that are not known for being especially playful, like Cinghiale and Woodberry Kitchen. Woodberry has a sweet basil ice cream. Cinghiale has tomato-basil and olive oil sorbets.

That tomato-basil sorbet gets added to a chilled tomato soup at Cinghiale. For dessert, pastry chef Cara Flynn is about to start pairing her extra virgin olive oil gelato with zucchini cake and an heirloom tomato marmellata.

"That's one of those flavors — not many people have been doing an extra virgin olive oil sorbet," said Julian Marucci, executive chef at Cinghiale. "A lot of people think — oily, greasy. … It should have a really beautiful, silky texture and should go really excellent with the flavors of the zucchini and the acidity of the tomato marmellata."

Marucci sees savory ice creams as part of a trend that grew out of the salted caramel kick, which he said started about a decade ago but really caught in the past couple of years. In fact, Cinghiale has a salted caramel gelato.

"It's really intriguing when people start to use these new flavors in their ice creams and sorbets," Marucci said. "Some people's palates are looking for more than the simple flavors people grew up with. They're looking for something new, bright."

The unusual flavors are not restricted to restaurants. They come by the cone at Dominion Ice Cream, a shop in Charles Village. Dominion has had a few vegetable-flavored ice creams — all of them sweet, so they're still "an ice cream experience," said owner Donna Calloway — since it opened in Charles Village four years ago.

But the shop, which also offers traditional flavors, expanded its vegetable ice cream selection from four flavors to 11 this summer to accommodate a Food Network request. Food Network asked to shoot an episode of "Chefs vs. City" in the shop. The show, which aired Aug. 20, had four chefs guessing which ice creams contained which veggies, something that isn't always obvious because the vegetable taste is sometimes masked by fruit, Calloway said. They needed lots of vegetable flavors for the challenge, so Dominion added to its original lineup of spinach, carrot, sweet potato and tomato.

They've kept the new flavors on the menu and one of them, cucumber, has quickly become a best-seller. The other new flavors are beet, sweet corn, red cabbage, butternut squash, jalapeno and garlic.

Garlic? Really?

"It's not something you feel in your taste buds until after you've eaten the scoop," Calloway said. "It's very subtle."

No one soft-pedals the oddity of the ice cream at Jack's Bistro. Before diners get around to pink-peppercorn-lavender for dessert, they can have ranch ice cream with their entree.

Chef-owner Ted Stelzenmuller uses a scoop of the ranch to top his pork belly BLT, which is hunk of pork, cooked sous vide, and then crisped on the grill, and served on a bed of marinated tomatoes and arugula. It's not as strange as it sounds, said Smertycha, the Jack's manager.

"As it melts down, it becomes a dressing, but it's served as a dollop of ice cream — just sort of fun for summer," she said.

And then there's the buttered-popcorn ice cream that is part of the "deconstructed kettle corn" dessert. It's served in two dishes, one with cinnamon bread pudding topped with butterscotch sauce, the other with buttered popcorn ice cream with toffee pieces.

The dessert has "a cult following," Smertycha said. "Even people that just try it because they think it sounds strange and they're laughing take it very seriously after they've tried it."


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