Saturday, October 10, 2009

Transported to Italy (via the West Village)

I mentioned Grom in my previous post and since I had dinner in the West Village once again, I figured it was worth a re-visit. I ate at Keste, which is one of the new hot brick-oven pizza joints in town. So what better way to end a rustic Neapolitan dinner than with typical Italian ice cream?

Grom is an Italian gelato chain that came to New York a few years ago. The Upper West Side location has a huge line down the street almost every night. The gelato is not cheap, but it is really really good.

The shop itself is rather sterile and modern looking. The employees are usually young, but friendly enough. And the flavors, which all go by their Italian names, are varied and change pretty regularly.

The girl behind the counter made a face when I picked my first flavor to sample - liqourice. I picked up on her judgement and when I accused her of not liking this flavor, she admitted that it was the only flavor she didn't like. I can empathize because black licorice is not my favorite flavor in the world. But I found this to be very delicate with just the right balance between herbaceousness and sweetness.

Fortunately, my next choice met the girl's approval a bit more: Marron Glaces, which is a traditional Italian candy with candied chestnuts. This refreshingly did not remind me of Christmas. But it had that delicious, rich sweet chestnut flavor without being mealy or spicy (two adjectives I think of when I think of chestnuts).

It took minutes of agonizing to decide, but I picked Caramello with pink salt and Tiramisu for my actual order. The caramello was great. The saltiness was very subtle and just enough to balance the deep sweetness of the caramel. The tiramisu could have been a bit more espresso flavored for me, but all the components of a tiramisu were present, included pieces of ladyfingers mixed in.

Everything I tasted was incredible. The flavors were all sweet without being overpowering. The add-in's were perfectly distributed. The flavors were strong and lingering. The mouthfeel was incredibly soft and creamy. Somehow you feel like you're in Italy (even if you've never stepped foot in the country). For a brief moment, while the gelato-filled spoon lingers in your mouth, everything is perfect with the world.

My only complaint with Grom is the price. A small order is $5.25 (about the same size as Sant Ambroeus' $3). But when you consider how much a plane ticket to Italy costs, I think those five measly bones are worth it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sant Ambroeus

For almost a year now, I have been following a list. I love following lists - I'm watching all the Oscar winning films, reading all the Pulitzer Prize plays, and eating all of Time Out New York's Top 100 Things We Ate and Drank. Thanks to TONY, I have discovered some great dishes all across the city and I'm almost complete (besides the closed restaurants and seasonal items that are now long gone).

This project has finally brought me to some gelato. The other night, I went to Sant Ambroeus, an Italian bistro, in the West Village (there's also a location on the Upper East Side), in search of another of my list items: gelato!

I have eaten brunch at Sant Ambroeus a few years ago and enjoyed the ambience and the food. The most memorable moment was being watched by a little boy from inside, who surprisingly turned out to be the precocious son of Matthew Broderick. And now I've come back during a busy Friday night to try nothing be gelato.

At the side of the bar, they had a small little gelato freezer and it definitely was not your typical take-out window. Amongst West Village diners, we picked our flavors from about ten options that the bartender told us verbally. There may have been the sampling option, but due to the unique environment, I felt it may not be appropriate.
I settled on traditional Italian flavors: mint chip and hazelnut. For $3.50, the one scoop was quite small. But the gelato was creamy and soft and very enjoyable. The mint flavor was not as authentic as I expect but the chip pieces were well distributed. The hazelnut was nice and nutty, if a bit artifical.

Overall, this is a pretty standard gelato option. If you're having a meal at the restaurant, a gelato serving is worth it. But if you're just walking by, Grom is a few blocks away and, in my opinion, a better gelato destination.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Torico's is muy rico!

I am a sucker for unusual and interesting flavors - especially when it comes to ice cream. My friend had recently told me about Torico's in Jersey City. She thought I would particularly be interested in it because of their exotic ethnic flavors. So, faster than you can say bacon ice cream, I made my way to the residential area of Jersey City and we found Torico's.

The layout and menu were a bit scattered. The parlor itself wasn't as pristine as I expect most ice cream parlors to be, but it was homey and comfortable enough. As I looked at the menus, I was baffled by all the choices. They have ice cream, soft serve, sherbets, italian ices, slushies, and so on. So I skipped the menu and just looked into the freezers to see what looked good.

The flavors were sort of grouped together by category. When I had been daydreaming about my ice cream shop, this is what I had thought to do but on a grander scale. Of course, I immediately flocked to the exotic flavors. Some were less bizarre than others. There were the usual Asian flavors: lychee, ginger, green tea, etc. and there were others that you don't see as often, for instance, ube (purple yam), mamey (a tropical fruit with a similar taste to pumpkin), jackfruit (which I had heard of but never seen), and avocado.

I was impressed by how eager the employees were to give out tastes (I ask for a lot) and talk about the flavors. We tasted the jackfruit immediately which was refreshing and reminiscent of lots of tropical flavors: mango, lemon, pineapple. The ube was rich and flavorful. The same was true for the avocado ice cream. This had a lot of depth and creaminess. I had avocado water ice many years ago from my favorite place in Florida. And I remember it not being a big seller (I'm not sure he actually sold any of it). The lady here said it's one of their biggest flavors. I guess people in the tri-state area who like their avocado ice cream know this is where to get it. I also asked for a taste of the butterscotch, which was sweet and intense and distinct from a caramel flavor.

We decided on mamey, banana, and coffee cookie. There were three separate coffee flavors and they were all variations on the same thing (regular coffee, coffee with oreos, and coffee with fudge). The coffee was actually the most disappointing which was terribly disappointing because coffee is the most perfect ice cream flavor in my opinion. The coffee was not very strong and even had a bit of an artificial taste. I didn't find that true of the other two. The banana had a perfect dark beige color and tasted almost like roasted bananas. The mamey had a deep if slightly bland flavor.

As we were leaving, we checked out the pre-packaged section and I loved their little tasting options. They were divided into more sections (exotic, kid friendly, old favorites, etc.) and featured samples of about six flavors each. It was a great idea - especially for somebody as indecisive as me. It was in one of these packages that I noticed soursop sorbet.

How did I miss soursop in their freezer? I had made soursop ice cream years ago for a chef of mine from the Carribean. Soursop is a fruit also known as guanabana in certain areas. It was almost impossible for me to find, but I found it canned in a bodega in Chinatown.

I had to have one more taste. The employee was genuinely happy to give us another sample. I felt bad since we already had our ice cream. The soursop was refreshing and a bit tart.

It had more of a lemon flavor than I remembered. It's supposed to have a slightly sweet, tart flavor somewhere between a pineapple and a banana. So I'll have to come back and taste it more fully because that little taste didn't do it justice.

Between the exotic flavors, the fresh flavorful ice cream, and the friendly employees, Torico's has won me over. I will definitely make the trip back out to Jersey City (only a quick PATH train ride from midtown) to get my exotic ice cream fix.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Decent Human Being

I always walk by Monofuko Milk Bar, since it is on a populated street in the East Village. I had been once before (as I had documented in a previous post) and walked away muy disappointed. I feel like I should give it a second chance. I peeked in today, as usual, checked out their crazy soft serve flavors and then walked on, partially daunted by the crowd.

Well, one of the flavor names stuck in my head and I began craving a taste. I had walked about four or five blocks when I realized I had to go back. The flavor? Sweet and salty cucumber. Weird, right? But it sounds like it could be refreshing and delicious. I once made a very successful cucumber gin and tonic sorbet.

It wasn't too crowded when I got back and stepped up to the front. I read the sign that each customer is only entitled to one sample. That throws my usual routine into turmoil! Well, they only had four flavors (the aforementioned cucumber, watermelon, horchata, and cereal milk). The cereal milk is sort of their famous standard, which I have never tried but figured I'd have other opportunities. Horchata is a Mexican rice drink sweetened with cinnamon. I enjoy it, but I figured what it would taste like. So that left the watermelon and cucumber.

I asked for a sample of the watermelon and immediately realized why customers were only allowed one sample each. It was like a mini-serving. It came in a small plastic cup and with a little wooden spoon. It was delicious - not too creamy, not too icy - and really had the watermelon flavor. Great, so now on to what I came for. I ordered the cucumber and the girl looked at me with a bit of doubt. She asked if I had ever tried it and when I said no, she added a little bit to my watermelon sample.

I was surprised at how green it was. But the flavor was subtle, with a lot of salt. I liked it and thought I could eat more, but all of a sudden I began to feel full. I basically got two tastes here and they really were not small. The thought of eating a serving of this sweet and salty ice cream after already downing a mini-helping, didn't sound so great.

I didn't know what to do. I'm not the person who comes in and asks for a free sample and then leaves. But I didn't want to force myself to eat more than I wanted. She suggested I buy a cookie, but I didn't really want that. So I offered, "Why don't I just leave you a tip and we'll call it a night?" She certainly didn't object and thanked me for being a decent human being. I guess many people come in for free samples and leave it at that.

I walked away feeling a little strange. I felt bad about only getting a sample, but proud that I had the proper instinct, and impressed that I didn't gorge myself. Soft serve made me feel good about myself - and it had nothing to do with the taste.

In a way, I was back where I started. I still haven't given Momofuko Milk Bar a full second chance. But my interest has been re-ignited and this decent human being will return soon enough.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Ice Cream With A View

I had read about this place over a year ago when I was upstate doing a play near the Catskills. Due to circumstances beyond my control (mainly the lack of a car), I never made it out to Bellvale Creamery in Warwick, NY.

But this year was a different story and now I have been to what many call the best ice cream in
NY state. In addition to great ice cream made from the finest ingredients, Bellvale also lures visitors with majestic views of Mt. Peter.

When we pulled up, I don't remember being to an ice cream shop with such beautiful scenery since I was in Maine. I was excited to see all the people enjoying their ice cream overlooking the beautiful Warwick Valley. I was even more excited to join them.

The line wasn't too long when we arrived so we were able to taste a few options. The store was cute with some plastic cows hanging around for scenery and the smell of fresh waffle cones wafting in the air for the most effective up-sell technique possible. They featured both standard homemade flavors and then homemade specialty flavors which had semi-creative names such as, Bellvale Bog (chocolate with browines and fudge), Great White Way (white chocolate with dark chocolate chunks and raspberry swirl), and Black Dirt Blast (chocolate coffee with fudge and toffee).

We tasted a number of the flavors and they were all creamy and seemed really delicious. They all had some sort of add-in, which always makes me wonder if they were covering up for the lack of flavor in the actual ice cream. Even their standard coffee had chocolate covered "espresso" beans (I'll explain those quotations in a bit) mixed in. I felt a little like a kid in a candy shop with all the flavors featuring candy bar pieces and whatnot.

I settled on the Great White Way and After Dinner Mint. I would have ordered coffee, but my friend beat me to it and I never like to have the same two flavors at the table (or picnic table, in this case).

We got a picnic bench just outside and enjoyed watching all the families and couples. I was probably the only one being so critical, but I expect great ice cream every time - especially when a place is hailed as "the best." So here goes...

I will say the mouth feel across the board was very rich and creamy. The problems I had were with all the additives. The coffee tasted strong and fresh at first but the more we ate, we noticed an artificial, almost medicinal quality. I'm guessing if there is real coffee in the ice cream, it's mixed with a concentrated coffee flavor. Also, we discovered that those chocolate covered "espresso" beans were not espresso beans at all, but some crunchy chocolate coffee candy pieces. They were delicious as most sugary candy is, but a bit of a disappointment.

I had a similar problem with the After
Dinner Mint. It really tasted like those cheap mints you get on your way out of a diner - a bit reminiscent of toothpaste. And then those crunchy mint pieces seemed to be just that. It was a bit off-putting to discover that those candy pieces dyed the ice cream pink and green. It was advertised as containing chocolate covered mint pieces - but I should have stopped to ask myself just what are mint pieces??? Do they exist in the real world? Think about it: mint pieces?!?

The Great White Way fared better with the raspberry swirl and the chocolate chunks. The flavor combination was pretty classic and the white chocolate ice cream was properly richer than a vanilla.

The waffle cones, I must admit, were excellent and made it difficult to stop eating the ice cream since I really wanted to get to that fresh baked goodness.

I guess I'm a bit of an ice cream purist - and definitely an ice cream snob. The view was beautiful and the experience of getting ice cream up on top of a mountain was thrilling. But Bellvale's ice cream was mediocre. It's clear that they use really fresh dairy products and it shows in the texture, but the ice cream chef really needs to re-think the flavors - especially if he's trying to appeal to adults as well as children.

But then again, what do I know, because as we left, the line was out the door. I guess some people still like their ice cream loaded with candy. And can I really blame them for that?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Washington State Adventures

The next stop on my Pacific Northwest tour was Seattle, Washington. I spent quite a bit of time in Pike Place Market, which was a foodie's dream come true. I could have lived there, and based on the number of homeless people around, I think some people do.

But after a long day of eating, I had to top it of
with some local ice cream. Molly Moon's seemed to be the local favorite and there are two locations. I visited the one in the cute family-centric neighborhood of Wallingford.

I arrived late, around 4:00, and was amazed at how long
the line was. The interior was bare bones in a very hip, industrial style. Molly's focuses on local ingredients and interesting ice cream flavors. Walking in and smelling the waffle cones, got me very excited. This is definitely my type of ice cream shop.

I did my usual taste test first and asked for both strawberry balsamic and mojito sorbet. I like how they gave you the two tastes on opposite sides of a popsicle stick. An ingenious idea. It's a cool way of trying lots of ice cream and it's much better for the environment. I have focused on making alcohol inspired sorbets in the past and I know how tricky it is. The mojito didn't work for me and really just tasted like a lime sorbet. It needed mint and rum in there! And I think the taste of the strawberry balsamic was maybe too small to get the full effect because I didn't get much balsamic.

I had to get one of those waffle cones because they smelled too good. I'm a sucker for homemade waffle cones. I settled on one scoop of salted caramel and one scoop of honey lavender. The ice cream was soft and very creamy and the flavors were definitely there, but they actually may have been a bit too strong.

I had an amazing salted caramel ice cream from Jeni's in Columbus, Ohio and I don't think any
can compare to that. This salted caramel was way too salty. It lost almost all of the sweet flavor of the caramel and it was dominated by the salt. In fact, I had a hard time finishing it. The honey lavender on the other hand was much more balanced. I really loved the big lavender pieces throughout and the honey was just sweet enough.

The waffle cones were inconsistent because mine was way too soft and slightly stale. My friend's however was perfectly crisp and warm and delicious. I think I may have gotten an old batch.

I wanted to love Molly Moon's. All the components were there, but there were a few missteps and inconsistencies. Maybe we came on an off-day, I don't know, but I had the strange sensation of being both elated and disappointed with the experience.

Mallard on the other hand was close to perfection. It was the best of the three ice cream shops I visited on my trip. It's in the surprisingly hip but quaint town of Bellingham, which is just under 90 miles north of Seattle.

It's located on one of the main drags downtown and is opened later than I would have guessed. We arrived at about 10:30 and it wasn't too crowded, but a few groups of college kids lingered on the couches. I was amazed at how big the shop was. It definitely seemed like a local institution.

I was overwhelmed and excited by the board listing all the flavors. There was a great variety of unique wacky flavors and the old standards. I could tell that the young employees enjoyed working there and I felt this is exactly the kind of ice cream shop I would love to own one day. I was also impressed that the kid behind the counter didn't seem to mind when I asked for a taste of just about everything.

My first taste was their famous Vanilla Black Pepper and I was a bit underwhelmed. It didn't have much heat or surprise. But then I got into the good stuff. The coriander, on the other hand, had plenty of spice and flavor. The fresh plum was awesome with big pieces of sweet plums. Plum was my favorite fruit as a kid and I was never able to find pure plum flavor in any ice creams back then. Oh, if I only had Mallard!

The rose was also great with lots of sweet, floral flavors. I was convinced to taste the maple walnut (my Uncle's favorite), which was great and not too sweet. The lime ice cream was amazing - just the right amount of balance between sweet and tart. And the apricot black tea ice! I asked if the ice was like a sorbet and the answer was not quite. It was much more icy and less smooth than a sorbet. Very similar to the sorbets I make - I'm betting they don't use any corn syrup or egg whites to thicken it.

I had no idea what my next move should be. They were all so good. I finally decided on a cone of espresso coriander and fresh plum. They were both great. The ice cream was perfectly flavored and had a nice mouthfeel.

I was so impressed with Mallard. From the quality of the ice cream to the comfortable decor to the fun-spirited youthful employees, I felt very much at home here. I've had thoughts since I've returned of dropping everything in New York and going to get a job as a scooper at Mallard. I'd probably be their oldest employee!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Cool Moon Ice Cream

I recently returned from an amazing trip across the Pacific Northwest. I had a wonderful time and fell in love with the genuinely friendly locals, the beautiful scenery, the fresh ingredients, and the relaxed lifestyle. All of that helped contribute to the style of ice cream.

My first ice cream experience on that side of the world was at Cool Moon Ice Cream in Portland, Oregon. I learned that Portland is pretty lacking when it comes to artisan ice cream shops. They seem over-run by chains and packaged ice creams. But this parlor opened a few years ago and appears to be doing pretty well for themselves.

Cool Moon is in the Pearl District, a very cute neighborhood of Portland located across from Jameson Square, which features a lovely fountain that kids can play in. I was lucky enough to go to Cool Moon with my friend Rachel and her adorable son Byron. It has been a while since I had ice cream with a little guy and it was refreshing and inspiring to see how excited Byron got. Although he was also pretty excited by his Transformer toys and at some point, that became
more important than the ice cream.

The flavors of ice cream were unique but not too out there. As usual, I tasted a few until deciding on another flavor completely. I tasted the cinnamon, which was quite strong. And their popular mint chip was thankfully not green, but I didn't get a strong fresh mint flavor. I'm guessing they use a mint extract. I also tasted kulfi, which is a traditional South Asian dessert. It was very unique with hints of pistachios, rosewater, and cardamom. It may have been a little to floral for my tastes, but I liked the strength in flavor.

I settled on one of their coffee ice creams that wasn't on the menu. I just noticed an unlabeled container and asked about it. And I almost always go for the coffee. I was surprised the flavor wasn't stronger based on the other flavors I tasted. It was more like a cappuccino flavor with just a few coffee notes and a lot of cream. It had a great mouth feel and the ice cream was very creamy.

I wish I could have tried more or returned for a second visit. Cool Moon has some strong ice cream, but nothing fully blew my mind. I think it's a consistent place in a great location. I imagine they get some good business and it seems like a relaxed and happy atmosphere, which is important when it comes to ice cream. And since they don't seem to have much competition, this is the place to go in Portland.