Denver's restaurants have flawlessly executed classic desserts, infusing originality and topping them with artistic flare. The last course may very well be the first thing on your mind.
Renowned for its sublime sugar highs, D Bar, celebrity chef Keegan Gerhard’s restaurant in Uptown, knows exactly how to channel your sweet spot—through sugar-dusted beignets enveloping Nutella in all its creamy, dreamy glory; ice cream floats and milkshakes; Gerhard’s heralded three-layer chocolate cake iced frosted with Madagascar chocolate; build-your-own sundaes; and even liquid dessert libations like the 50 Shades of Chai with chai liqueur, vanilla vodka, vanilla ice cream and earl grey sugar.
It's hard to miss Little Man Ice Cream in the Highland neighborhood — just look for the 28-foot-tall milk can and you'll know you're in the right place. There's usually a line, but it's worth the wait for this handmade, locally sourced sweet. In addition to standards like butter pecan and mint chocolate chip, there are sample innovative flavors from Bhakti chai to salted Oreo. Little Man also offers vegan ice cream and sorbet for the dairy-averse, so it'll make everyone's day. You can also find Little Man Ice Cream at the Milkbox Ice Creamery in Denver Union Station.
It’s a simple mathematical equation: Love plus cookies equal victory. That’s the motto of Kristy Greenwood, the founder of Victory Love + Cookies, an itsy-bitsy shop in Highland (look for it inside the Denver Bread Company) that turns out remarkably good cookies (the chocolate-chip are a cult favorite), along with booty bars, shortbread layered with dulce de leche, milk chocolate, Nutella wafers, Rice Krispies and a flourless chocolate brownie. They’re rich, decadent and delicious—and best consumed cold. If you’re in the Cookie Monster camp, Greenwood’s goodies will make you roar with glee.
VESTA, ACE EAT SERVE AND STEUBEN’S
Nadine Donovan, who comes from a long lineage of pastry chefs—her great-grandmother owned a bakery in Wales, her grandfather was a bread baker in England, and her mom was a professional pastry chef in Canada—oversees the diabolically good pastry programs at Vesta, Steuben’s and Ace Eat Serve, all of which are umbrellaed under the Secret Sauce restaurant group. From her brilliant sweet potato beignets with toasted marshmallows at Vesta to her nostalgic lemon mousse icebox bar with ginger crumble and blackberry sauce at Steuben’s, Donovan’s post-dinner finales are innovative masterpieces of finesse and refinement, while her flavor profiles deftly straddle the line between sweet and savory.
INVENTING ROOM DESSERT SHOP
There’s always something fantastically wacky and wonderful to try at this progressive West Highland dessert emporium from Ian Kleinman, a molecular magician and science lab wizard who taught Denver that things like Twizzler space foam, exploding whipped cream, spun sugar, clouds of smoke and pomegranate fizz pop-rocks reach way beyond Willy Wonka’s fictional candy factory.
There is some seriously sensational stuff going down at Sweet Cooie’s, an elegant ice cream parlor and confection boutique in Congress Park that’s hued Tiffany turquoise blue. The jewel-box-size space displays housemade ice cream, including sherbet and sorbet, along with floats and shakes, handcrafted chocolate truffles, Scottish toffee and shortbread. Try the Gooey Cooie, a split brioche bun that’s gently warmed in a panini press, sandwiched with ice cream and glazed with icing.
If the thought of dairy-free ice cream makes you shake your head in repudiation, think again. At this contemporary-cool café in south Denver, condensed milk-based Taiwanese shaved ice is the stuff that dreams are made of. The vegan fluffs of frozen ice, served in bowls, are paper thin, and the mounds are sidekicked with everything from mini mochis and mixed nuts to fresh strawberries and mango-popping bobas. The flavor combinations are endless, and there’s always a surprise in store if you ask the staff for the secret menu.
Under the meticulous care of master bread maker and pasty whiz Michael Bortz, loaves, cookies, cakes, scones, croissants, tarts and pies fill every niche and satisfy every fantasy. Though Bortz’s breads are the primary temptation, loyal patrons are just as smitten with his dangerously decadent pies, a surplus of static and seasonal flavors that keeps fans flocking to his cheerful Golden Triangle Creative District digs that hum with good vibes. His labor-intensive, beautifully layered Marjolaine cake—a French confection—is an elegant showstopper that everyone should indulge in at least once.
CRÈME BRULEE AT CRUISE ROOM
Crème brulee: the classic dessert order. You know you can't DIY without risking serious bodily injury (a dessert requiring a blow torch, really?) and someone else at your table is probably craving it, too. At the Cruise Room, Denver's oldest bar, located in the historic Oxford Hotel, the crème brulee is as perfectly bronzed as a beach babe, the custard stays chilled and consistent all the way through, and the sultry, red-shaded jazz bar is conducive to enjoying this French dessert while sipping a vanilla-bean or white-chocolate after-dinner martini.
SOPAPILLAS AND (FRIED) ICE CREAM AT RIO GRANDE MEXICAN RESTAURANT
Fried ice cream seems more counterintuitive than, say, fried dough. But the crunchiness of Las Delicias' ice cream, covered in corn flakes and deep fried, perfectly complements the airy, powdered sugar-dusted sopapillas. Drizzle with honey and you've got the hottest/coldest combo in Denver. If you're not quite ready for a double dose of deep fry, try the sopapillas with classic vanilla-bean ice cream at Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant.
BAKLAVA AT JERUSALEM RESTAURANT
It's no wonder baklava's origins are foggy. It seems that every known ethnicity would want to claim this delicious, age-old dessert. I've tried it at various Greek and Middle Eastern restaurants, but my favorite is Jerusalem Restaurant's. Each layer of the baklava's crunchy phyllo dough fully absorbs the simple sauce of butter, water, sugar, vanilla, honey and cinnamon to boast unceasing flavor. Chopped nuts, also the product of hours basking in the sweet sauce, add a muted crunch. So it's also no wonder that, located near the University of Denver, the restaurant has become a go-to for ravenous co-eds. The baklava glistens in a puddle of syrup as it arrives at your table, but after eating a well-seasoned lamb kabob or falafel, you'll be the one soaking it all up.
PIE AT WEDNESDAY'S PIE
Cupcakes. Donuts. Cronuts. They've all had their day in the sun, but now it's the humble pie's time to shine! And the best place to get a slice (or a whole pie, should you be so inclined) is at Wednesday's Pie, a tiny pie shop tucked under Larimer Square. Check the old-fashioned chalkboard sign to find out which seasonal pies they're serving today: key lime, caramel apple, banana cream, Palisade peach or even pineapple ricotta. (Pssst: Wednesday's is also the front to Green Russell, Downtown Denver's speakeasy-style cocktail bar!)
MOLTEN CHOCOLATE CAKE AT CORRIDOR 44
Crossing any cultural, historical and intellectual barriers is the molten chocolate lava volcano tower delight found all over the state. A moist chocolate cake exterior with a gooey molten center, complete with powdered sugar, thinly sliced almonds or a mound of fresh fruit — it's everything the quintessential chocolate dessert should be. Whatever the name, wherever the restaurant, each provides an original take on the mouthwatering modern classic. Celebrate the success of this coco indulgence with Corridor 44's version, which is topped with whipped cream and berries.
By Lori Midson