On a sweaty, sunny summer afternoon, there's nothing like a fresh-dipped ice-cream cone. But after a long, heavy meal? Even the most ardent fans of New York Super Fudge Chunk will generally have to pass. Enter sorbet. Chefs swear by the palate-cleansing capabilities of these dairy-free concoctions, with just enough acid or bitterness to clear and reawaken the taste buds. Sorbet can even outperform its richer cousin during those stressful times, after a tough day or a bad date, when you find yourself reaching into the freezer.
Supermarket sorbets like Sharon's and Haagen Dazs are already a far cry from the sherbets and syrupy ices of the past. But these days, some of the city's most talented pastry chefs are taking the art of puréeing, sweetening, and churning fresh fruit to new levels, combing farmer's markets for the freshest ingredients and experimenting with combinations of exotic fruits, herbs, and vegetables. They're having a field day, and diners are enjoying the results.
A good sorbet or granita -- which is similar, but is shaved after being frozen, rather than run through a machine -- should preserve the essence of its main ingredient, with a little sugar, says Jean François Bonnett, pastry chef at Atelier in the Ritz Carlton hotel. "When you make ice cream, the milk cuts the flavor," he explains. "With sorbet, you are getting a truer, more intense taste." The trade-off: This purity of flavor is unforgiving to inferior ingredients, and an underripe or out-of-season fruit will taste at least as bland when it's in sorbet form.
But even in its richest, most ice-cream-like forms -- such as those made with starchy fruits like bananas and guavas or with the addition of buttermilk or yogurt -- sorbet is still kinder to the waistline. And then there are the elements that never would have worked in ice cream. Think chamomile, tequila, or yuzu. Even grocery stores have gotten more adventurous. Among the best are Ciao Bella's coconut and mango concoctions, Sharon's passion fruit and chocolate, and Blue Moon's pear-ginger and raspberry-cassis. But for the real connoisseur, sorbet should be made fresh each day (some chefs even insist on running it through the machine just prior to consumption). Once you've tried banana-tarragon or vanilla-litchi, coffee-crunch ice cream may seem just a tad mundane. Here are our picks for the city's best sorbets:
50 Central Park So.; 212-521-6125
Goat-milk sorbet. The fromage-blanc dessert made with goat milk is creamy with a touch of salt and the tang of yogurt. It's served with a blueberry compote for added texture and sweetness. AZ 21 W. 17th St.; 212-691-8888 Buttermilk. Mellowed with ground vanilla, it tastes like frozen yogurt, but with more tang.
1439 Second Ave.; 212-288-8555
Sgroppino. It's best to sip this blend of lemon sorbet, champagne, and Absolut Citron at an outdoor café like the Italians do.
208 W. 70th St.; 212-875-8600
Puréed mint sorbet with mango mâche salad. Refreshing bits of mint enliven the sorbet, which is served over a salad of diced mango and mâche and drizzled with a mango dressing.
206 Spring St.; 212-653-0100
Pineapple sorbet with crispy dried pineapple. A crunchy slice of oven-dried pineapple tops the sorbet, which is like a piña colada without the coconut cream.
W. 44th St.; 212-944-8844
Vanilla litchi. The flavor of lychee can be too subtle to stand up to sorbet, so 44 blends it with vanilla bean for an extra kick.
509 E. 6th St.; 212-777-5920
Banana sorbet with tarragon. Frozen and puréed banana achieves the velvety consistency of ice cream; the infused herbs add complexity, elevating it from baby food to a sophisticated, aromatic ambrosia.
400 E. 57th St.; 212-486-6400
Mojito sorbet. The pale green sorbet with fresh mint, lime, and rum tastes just like the Cuban drink, but with a creamier consistency.
822 Madison Ave.; 212-988-7277
Shiso granita. Shiso, the minty leaf that enlivens sushi, is whisked into a perfect icy intermezzo.
2 E. 55th St.; 212-339-6719
Purple fig and aged port. Seasonal purple figs are poached in a reduction of 40-year-old port before being puréed; served with warm figs sautéed with vanilla and port. Doubles as a nightcap.
1057 Lexington Ave.; 212-517-6400
Blackberry-rhubarb sorbet. Seasonal berries and rhubarb are stewed together, frozen, and spun into a cooling version of pie filling.
60 Thompson St.; 212-219-2000
Muscat granitée with macerated fruit. The citrus acid balances the sweet muscat, and notes of vanilla round out the flavor of this granita served in a chilled martini glass with wine-soaked summer fruits.
200 E. 54th St.; 212-486-9592
Green-apple wasabi. The perfect palate (and sinus) cleanser. Your tongue won't know what hit it.