Beyond the Ice Cream: The Bent Spoon in Princeton, New Jersey
We've written about their banana whip; Ed's raved about their contributions to the New Amsterdam Market. But even though we've got a long-standing relationship with The Bent Spoon—one of our contributors worked there, and I spent several years making near-daily visits—we've never done the definitive post. So it was about time we made a return trip.
Opened in May of 2004 by Gabrielle Carbone and Matt Errico, The Bent Spoon is less an ice cream shop than a lab of ingredient wizardry. Sure, they have a few standard house flavors—no, not chocolate chip and strawberry; more like chocolate habanero and cardamom ginger.
But "seasonality" doesn't quite capture the philosophy behind the rest of their rotating offerings. It's not "Where can I get the best ingredients for this ice cream?" Rather, "This is what I want to be eating right now. Let's make an ice cream out of it!" That explains the sweet potato ice cream and the Triumph Brewery stout, the crème fraîche ice cream and the heirloom tomato sorbet. Olive oil. Bourbon with caramel and sea salt. Earl grey. Red cabbage. And, literally, hundreds more.
The Spoon works closely with surrounding farmers and dairies, milking the most out of their New Jersey location. Princeton may be a straight shot down the Northeast Corridor from New York, but wander half a mile outside the town proper and the farms pop up around every bend.
"We choose to support local farmers, producers, and purveyors," reads Carbone's whimsical handwriting. "You are really tasting and experiencing the essence of this region."
And local ingredients turn up everywhere, from the milkshakes to the baked goods. The Bent Spoon's cookies are reliably fantastic: smooth, just-crumbly peanut butter cookies; super-buttery chocolate chunk; pliant, spicy molasses; hearty, sugar-topped oatmeal raisin; and chewy, musky ginger cookies. They taste like the best sort of homemade cookies—taste carefully, and you can still sense the butter and sugar they started as.
Cupcakes come both big and tiny. The cake itself is moist and mild, with a bit of a bite in the crumb, intensely rich buttercream frosting on top.
But no matter how cold the New Jersey winter may get, no matter whether you've already ordered a cookie and a silky, European-style hot chocolate, it's impossible to resist the ice cream. On my most recent visit, that meant earthy New Jersey pumpkin mascarpone with cacao nibs, New Jersey honey, peanut butter, and cranberry cider and pear prosecco sorbets. Each one was phenomenal. The latter sorbet had the gritty, hefty mouthfeel of a real pear; the honey had a raw, floral taste that made one wonder where the bees had been landing. I found a tiny bit of cranberry stem in the former, but I didn't mind. Just an extra dimension.
These are the kinds of flavors so powerful that they go beyond mere taste—conjuring up memories, rather than just sensation. "This tastes like Peanut Butter Ripple at this one, tiny ice cream place on the Jersey shore," mused my dining companion, as we worked our way through the flavors. "This tastes like stealing my neighbor's pears in September." "This tastes like Thanksgiving." And with the lingering warmth of all those pumpkin pie spices, with the bite of cranberry and sweetness of apple, it truly did.
It was a sharply cold October night when we sat outside, shivering over our ice cream, one bite at a time. But across the street, back at the Bent Spoon, there was a line out the door. Even into the winter months, they draw a crowd, students and families crunching in from the snow for their frozen desserts. It's hard to make sense of. Well, until you've gotten a taste.