Like any ice cream shop worth its salt this time of year, you’ll consistently find a scrum thronging the counter, stools, and seats at Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream (2 Rivington Street, 212-209-7684), a new Lower East Side parlor. A gleaming white board above the counter announces flavors like chocolate oat and salted caramel pretzel, which you can have in a single, double, or triple dip; as anchors in shakes or floats; or as part of treats like royales and delights. You can top your scoops, too, with things like black fudge, labne, dried acai, and aleppo pecans.
Ice creams are not displayed behind the counter, which could explain why few people ask for a taste. Whoever is working the line will try to discourage that, anyway — he’ll oblige, but corral you into having just one spoonful, which should aid you in making a decision. And we can’t blame him; it’s hard to taste the flavors: Morgenstern’s starts with a base flavor — like vanilla, chocolate, or caramel — and then mixes in the other bits, be they pretzels or luxardo cherries, to order.
Place your order and give your name, and then step back to wait; counter jockeys will put together your treat and then call you up for it. You should probably sit there and enjoy it, or maybe find a nearby bench in the park that runs between Forsyth and Chrystie Streets. The ice cream is tempered, and, we learned this weekend, doesn’t really travel that well.
The shop’s founder, Nicholas Morgenstern (who’s also behind El Rey and Goat Town), spent years as a pastry chef in higher end restaurants, but he was hooked by ice cream early in his career when he was working at a San Francisco restaurant that had just received its first ice cream machine. “I was the person who had the job making the ice cream,” says the owner. That launched his obsession.
Later, after he’d moved to New York, he dreamed of having an ice cream cart in front of a restaurant, a vision that came to fruition when he opened the General Greene. When that was well-received, he began plotting a parlor.
While he scoured the city for space, he settled on a block of Rivington just off the Bowery. “I like the energy in this neighborhood,” he says. “I couldn’t be happier.” And then he did much of the build-out himself, installing the ice cream counter, seating counter, and a row of seats equipped with individual surfaces that resemble high school desks.
He envisioned, he says, “a contemporary American ice cream experience — a space where you can enjoy ice cream in all of its different applications, including sundaes, floats, shakes, scoops, and cones, but also a la mode with things like pie.”
The ice creams he’s churning (in-house, by the way, using a Philadelphia-style base of just milk, cream, and sugar) fall in line — “When I use the word contemporary, that translates into flavors as well,” he says. His board includes innovations like burnt honey vanilla, luxardo cherry road, coffee crisp, black ass licorice, and cardamom lemon jam. While he doesn’t have a manifesto for what he’ll turn into ice cream, he does say that “ice cream lends itself to certain flavor profiles.” Fruits, he adds, he reserves for the sorbets; look for varieties like Aperol grapefruit, huckleberry, and Champagne mango. He’s also making only one ice cream in a custard style (with egg), and that’s the American egg.
Morgenstern spent years contemplating the flavors he’d open his shop with, drawing inspiration from flavor profiles he’s spotted in different desserts, ingredients he thinks will match, and what he perceives as the contemporary palate. It helps, he says, that he has chefs and bartenders around him frequently.
Now that he’s finally open, he’s hoping to add something to the conversation about ice cream. “I think that ice cream has been overlooked by the food world,” he says. “It’s this thing that people love, yet it hasn’t been given the same treatment that hamburgers, tacos, and ramen have been given by chefs. I’m really excited be participating in that. I’m kind of in love with the whole thing.”
So what should you order? “The caramels are very popular,” he says. “We’re doing five different vanillas and five different chocolates, which also very popular. People like to taste the different vanillas side by side.”
Us, we’ll take a two dip cup of the salted caramel pretzel and the chocolate oat. And okay, some black fudge on top.
Morgenstern’s is open from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 8 a.m. until midnight on Friday and Saturday.