Review: Jeni’s gravels showcase company’s restless brilliance

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From the June 6, 2013 edition

Usually the thought of chewing on gravel causes me to wince, but since “gravels” are the hottest new thing at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, I decided to rethink my position. Currently starring on Jeni’s website, gravels are described there as “crunchy ice cream condiments in flavors inspired by American pop culture.”

The gravels sorta resembled edgy versions of Cold Stone-style “mix-ins” given the “sprinkles” treatment. Also on Jeni’s website — in a smart bit of marketing — customers are encouraged to create their own ice cream and gravel concoctions (plus maybe a Jeni’s-hawked sauce or two) and then name, hashtag (#jenisgravels) and instagram ’em. Several patron-designed, amusingly titled, I-wanna-devour-that-thing-now “sundae”-like combinations are shown. Obviously, the promise of heretofore unexplored Jeni’s fabulousness impelled me to check this whole gravel business out.

Inside the Splendid Clintonville shop, gravels are ardently advertised from banners strung all over the ceiling. With one glaring exception (get to that in a sec), the gravels kinda ate like candy-esque, kiddie-style breakfast cereals — only artisanally fabricated for more discriminating palates.

Here’s an abbreviated peek at the six currently available gravels: Donut — think bits of crisped-up Entenmann’s powdered donuts; Hot Benneseed — like crumbles of a spicy (halva-ish) sesame seed candy; Chocolate Blackout — recalls crushed Oreo discs; Shagbark — think Corn Pops cereal, but made with great tortilla chips; Salty Graham — made me think of pie-crusty smashed Golden Grahams plus salt; and (glaring exception time) Everything Bagel — perfectly named, it’s potent with onion and garlic.

OK, the fun with these not-meant-to-be-eaten-by-themselves gravels really begins when dreaming up possible combos with Jeni’s ice creams, e.g. (trying to keep things simple), I off-the-cuffed these: Whiskey and Pecan + Salty Graham = Pecan Pie; Queen City Cayenne + Shagbark = Fritos and Chili.

For research, I tried what I imagined to be like a “ringer” pair-up (Coffee ice cream + Donut gravel) and what sounded like the hardest gravel to partner-up (Everything Bagel) with its most likely fit (Cloverton ice cream, which features a neat dairy tang).

My “coffee and donuts” was a homerun, a seamless marriage of Jeni’s flavors and textures that seemed like it’d always existed. As for my “everything with a schmear,” well it worked, though I’m not totally convinced of garlicky desserts. What I am convinced of is this locally grown company’s restless brilliance.

Photo by Meghan Ralston