At Chef Noah French’s Sugarmill, Sweets Up! (Outfront)
First, a little backstory. The venerable Guard has many concepts to his name, not the least of which is Larimer Square’s TAG Continental Social Food. It was here that Troy and French joined forces, Troy building off success at Zengo and nine75, and French marking our sweets scene with simplicity and elegance.
Sugarmill, a dessert-driven cafe with an impressive selection of savory dishes to boot, is French’s day in the sun. The concept is really his — backed by Guard, of course — and sings with unique, personable creativity. While I can say I have spent little time at dessert bars in Denver (nods to DBar on 17th), I also haven’t spent much conversational time with a chef during a meal. There’s something magnetic about Chef French — his regular grins, idle banter, and ever-so-meticulous plating. It’s hard to take your eyes off the man — or his desserts — long enough to remember that you have a decadent dish in front of you.
But before dessert must come dinner (that’s what Mom always said). So dinner it was: a helping of Guard’s creations, executed with aplomb by Chef Jeff Hickman. And the selections were spot-on satisfying: simple, unembellished creations that spoke of whimsy instead of a kitchen trying too hard. There’s not a one that disappoints, but if you’re aiming for something small before a sweet entrée, consider two of my favorites: Roasted Sunchokes — meaty and rich — and the Short Rib Tortellini to share. There is no tortellini dish outside of Italy I have tried and found to have greater finesse, character, and tenderness. My only wish was that it carried more of a peppery or citrusy bite to cut the heaviness of rib and butternut squash purée.
While French fixated on caramel dots and spheres of chocolate, my eyes wandered the dining room. It’s a small space, I’ll grant you, but there’s not much need for more. Orb lights dangle from the ceiling, setting a glow on desserts laid across the counter, while on the expansive back wall, a mural of — you guessed it — a sugar mill pulls eyes in for examination. The tables, meanwhile, are mostly quaint two-tops with room for larger parties if the evening demands it. Next door, you can hear the faint murmur of crowds dishing and dining at Sugarmill’s savory counterpart, Los Chingones.
Then, dessert. A march of Apple Almond Tart, Red Velvet Crème Brûlée, Bunch of Bananas, and the celebrity Noahsphere. Each bore a resemblance to simple desserts known and loved by sweet-obsessed kids. The Almond Tart, for example, propelled the sugary lust forward with crème fraîche ice cream and a brown sugar honey sauce. The crust snapped with each bite in contrast to the seductively smooth ice cream. How do you follow that? With red velvet cake, of course — capped, decadently, with a silky smooth cream cheese crème brûlée. It was accented, merrily, by a smattering of five spice streusel and a quenelle of doughy red velvet ice cream.
With such a procession, there must be a pause. So the idle banter continued between sips of Petite Syrah, laughter ensuing over the crazy things that chefs do these days. “Cupcakes?” Chef asked, his smile turned to a question mark. “What’s the big deal about cupcakes?” We laughed, unable to figure out exactly why the icing-atop-batter phenomenon had launched to such popularity.
So I asked, curious with all this delicious creativity, if there was anything French wouldn’t touch. “You know,” he said, eyes lifting from the raspberries on a Jasmine Chocolate Bar, “I can’t do Key lime pie. There’s nothing wrong with it, really. People have good recipes for it. But to me — to me, it just tastes like aspirin.”
Not being a Key lime fan myself, I nodded approval and took a deep breath as the next dish found its way in front of us: Bunch of Bananas. As you can imagine, it was everything banana in very clever rendering: banana cheesecake atop banana walnut cake, plated alongside a float in miniature, fizzing with cream soda and banana ice cream. Effervescence meets comfort food in this creation, and it struck me that French’s variations of classic banana treats were touching on many fond childhood memories. Memories of banana-walnut quick bread fresh out of the oven on a Sunday afternoon. Memories of secret root beer float missions with my brothers when I was only 8. Memories of banana cream pie birthdays, conical hats docked on my very little head.
But the show-stopping finish for French has to be the aptly named Noahsphere. He says the name came from a blogger once upon a time, but it’s known by other appellations — like my favorite, the “Chocolate Death Star.” While I was well-plied with food at this point, it’s hard to neglect such an offering. Picture it: an orb of smooth dark chocolate, hollowed and filled with candied walnuts, flourless chocolate cake, and marshmallows, finished with impossible flourish by a smoldering pour of hot caramel, melting a hole in the top. It is rich; it is airy; it is earthy; it is delightful. But after a procession of sweets, I dare say this is one that needs a meal all to itself.
As we enjoyed our final licks and bites, I asked if French would ever dive into a pastry trend — something exploding in the world of desserts these days. He shook his head.
“I’ve been out there and tasted most of what’s going on,” he says. “I’m not impressed. Trends are just that — they come and go. I want to do what I do, and be inspired to create my own desserts.” Put another way, you won’t see him jumping on the cupcake truck any time soon.