If you think La Cantera’s over-the-top, try a scoop of P.J. Madison’s ice cream
Intentional or not, there’s something ironic about the hyper-Hill Country setting of the Shops at La Cantera. Here, palms and cypresses happily co-exist, limestone-lined streams bubble past patches of turf, strategically placed fans create zephyr-like breezes, and a few specimen live oaks serve as reminders of the actual landscape replaced by the artificial. In this setting, the frankly false “arboreal evocations” of concrete artist Carlos Cortes seem even more real than their carefully modeled, bark-like surfaces normally do.
|The cone ranger: Jacob Riegelsberger shows off a freshly made yellow-cake-batter ice-cream cone.|
One Cortes piece, a set of log-like stools surrounding a curious table topped with a towering trunk, occupies pride of place in the lower-rent end of the string of shops near La Cocinas, the enclosed food court, and it’s here that P.J. Madison’s ice-cream emporium has chosen to make a stand. P.J.’s angular interior plays nicely against its carefully contrived ecosystem, and its claim of all-natural ice creams contrasts even more forcefully with the exterior environment.
But ultimately the ice cream has to stand on its own, and it’s here that Patrick Davidson, a refugee from the I.T. industry, is in charge. Davidson studied with a gelato master in New York and an Iowa ice-cream maker, and combines these distinct styles in the product P.J.’s sells here and at the original shop in The Vineyard. The tiny samples offered on plastic spoons are inadequate to convey this subtle synergy, for at its best, ice-cream is a full-mouth experience. On a sample basis, the surprisingly mild Mexican Cinnamon ice cream disappointed the first time around, but pleased at second taste. The coconut, however, was no more interesting than a good paleta de coco. A turquoise-toned concoction was rejected on aesthetic grounds, but coffee with shards of dark chocolate was briefly considered before I settled on a coffee-Heath Bar blend.
I suspect the enjoyment of ice cream is enriched by nostalgia. Heath Bars and coffee happen to have been staples of my late-night college crunches, and thus the combo triggered a positive response. P.J.’s combines strong coffee and the brittle bar superbly. Girl Scouts are not part of my nostalgic baggage, but the Mint-and-Oreo-Cookie ice cream nevertheless evokes that image. The assertively green custard is pleasantly, but not aggressively, minty and the Oreo crumbles are in good balance both texturally and, well, gustatorily.
“I defy you to find a better pistachio ice cream anywhere” said our scoop as we continued to sample — and he was right, if you ignore a good Indian kulfee of the same flavor. Meriting a full scoop, this one tasted genuinely nutty (the pistachios come from volcanic soil in Sicily). But the best ice cream of the first foray was the dulce de leche, a flavor pioneered by Häagen-Dazs, at least in this market. P.J’s isn’t as blatantly lush and caramel-swirled as Häagen-Dazs’s version, but it’s more integrated and scores high in that all-important mouth-feel department.
P.J. Madison’s Gourmet Dessert Ice Cream Café
The Shops at La Cantera
15900 La Cantera Parkway
Peanut Butter Overload is everything a secret Skippy’s freak finds good about life, and is just excessive enough. P.J.’s “Super Premium Gelato Style” Milano Blueberry (yes, the fruit is from Italy), which I later bought in pint form at Central Market, isn’t as lush and creamy, but the concoction did taste intensely of real blueberries, not those bogus blobs often found in mass-market muffins. Synthetic flavors such as Gummi Bear and cotton candy will play a future role in PJ’s production, however, since the store is moving toward a three-tier system of organic, all-natural, and, er, ersatz — though “the base will always be of the highest quality” says co-owner Jennifer Davidson.
“Consumers are becoming more aware of what they put in their bodies,” says Jennifer. Organic pints will replace the current all-natural line in retail outlets such as Whole Foods. Some flavors can’t be made organic due to sourcing, of course, so don’t go thinking you’re off the guilt hook for good. Spurs Championship Chocolate, Cake Batter (a favorite that “tastes like licking the bowl, only cold,” says Jennifer), the luxurious Madagascar Bourbon (the species, not the booze) Vanilla, and Ooh La La Cantera, with a Mexican-vanilla base (it was created for La Cantera and especially appeals to Mexican Nationals, claims Jennifer), will still supply that slightly sinful element essential to a splurge. Patrick has created more than 200 flavors — he thinks — in his short career, and they’ll never all be cloaked in organic virtue.