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When it comes to ice cream, the city is saturated with saturated fat (and a few righteous healthier options to boot). Frozen-treat fanatics swarm the newest parlors, getting cross-eyed over foie gras drumsticks and provocative scoops like sriracha, carrot, cheddar cheese, and smoked salmon. This past spring, curious folks waited in line down the block when Nick Morgenstern opened his eponymous shop, dishing out $18 banana splits and ten varieties of chocolate and vanilla — they did it again when he launched breakfast (avocado ice cream toast, anyone?) earlier this month. But for every outlet devoted to gussying up frozen dairy, I’m often reminded of the restaurant ice creams I’ve known and loved, crafted by incredibly talented pastry (and occasionally savory) chefs. Sometimes they’re served in dishes unto themselves; occasionally they’re the stars of composed desserts, doled out as dainty quenelles. As a way of championing their pastry programs, more restaurants should offer ice cream to-go, or partner with parlors that can get the job done.
This was all inspired by a flavor I picked up at my local grocer, which stocks a hefty lineup from boutique Brooklyn brand Van Leeuwen ice cream. Last year the Van Leeuwen team introduced a flavor inspired by their sleek Indonesian restaurant, Selamat Pagi (152 Driggs Avenue, 718-701-4333), though I only recently happened upon its loud yellow packaging. Laura O’Neill, who runs her burgeoning dessert empire with partners Pete and Ben Van Leeuwen, explained that the restaurant’s spiced nuts — which buzz with curry powder and chiles — seemed like a natural fit for vanilla ice cream. Since the team already runs its retail ice cream operation from behind the restaurant, tinkering with the recipe was easy. The end result is a lightly curried vanilla ice cream shot through with salted caramel, with pockets of that inspired nut mix, balancing cream and spice. Sold at Whole Foods and a few other local grocery stores, the flavor has proven so popular, O’Neill confides, that it has garnered a spot in their forthcoming cookbook.
Of course, not every restaurant is equipped to go retail, but some creations are just asking for it. Contra, the progressive restaurant from Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske, offers a three-course dessert tasting, yet long after my initial visits I still reminisce about the vanilla ice cream that pastry whiz von Hauske fortified with nutty, caramelized squiggles of gjetost cheese and raspberry sauce. It would make for a marvelous pint. And at Marta, Danny Meyer’s airy pizzeria, the smoked mascarpone gelato is so rich and dreamy that they could market it to the Boy Scouts as campfire ice cream to cut in on those cookie sales. I’d also love to get meta with Lafayette pâtissier Jen Yee’s Allagash stout beer ice cream, which would taste great fizzing away in a pint of its main ingredient. And while those are all the daydreams of a critic with an anxious sweet tooth, Essex Street Market entrepreneurs Luca & Bosco answered prayers I never even knew I’d prayed with their series of limited-edition amaro ice creams.
Local brands are also getting in on the fun with the help of some national players. New for 2015, Häagen-Dazs has introduced a cache of five “artisan” ice creams that include NYC vendors like My Sweet, makers of the Brazilian condensed-milk chocolate bonbons called brigadeiros, and Brooklyn’s the Jam Stand. Their “Drunken Monkey” banana-rum jam complements the company’s classic vanilla. Sadly, the brigadeiro batch’s tres leches ice cream base gets lost a bit when competing with a fudgy chocolate swirl that’s meant to mimic the Latin American confection. There’s also ginger-molasses cookie from Clinton Hill–based bakery the Good Batch.
Creativity has never been a problem for our city’s custard chillers, but ice cream belongs to the people. The more of it made available, the better off we’ll all be.