Dining

Soft Spot

Chefs are putting a seriously elevated spin on soft serve this summer
Best Soft-Serve Ice Cream 2017
Photo: Evan Sung

You could record every firework, ocean wave and burger sizzle onto one big soundtrack, but it would never outplay the true song of summer: the first time you hear the ice cream truck rolling down the street.

With that truck comes the promise of a cone of symmetrically swirled soft-serve sporting a sheath of rainbow sprinkles. But after years of this reliable classic, chefs have started to take the ol' truck for a spin, kicking the summer staple up a notch. From flavors thought up by Michelin-ranked chefs to ones topped with homemade cheese crackers, these are the cones killing us softly this year—and, luckily, you don't have to chase down a roving truck to get a taste.

Though creative soft-serve caught our eye last year, newfangled swirls showed up to summer 2017 ready to go hard. Just ask Michael Tsang, cofounder of Soft Swerve in New York City. When Tsang opened the shop with childhood friend Jason Liu last year, they sold out on opening day—no small feat, considering they opened in the beginning of December. People lined up then as they do now for flavors you'd be hard-pressed to score off a truck, like ube, matcha and black sesame.

 

Our ice cream is really yammy! �: @cy_eats

A post shared by Soft Swerve (@softswervenyc) on

"Trips to Dairy Queen were pivotal in my childhood," Tyler Malek says. He's one of the masterminds behind Salt & Straw and Wiz Bang Bar, which opened last year in Portland, Oregon's Pine Street Market and doles out soft-serve creations as whimsical as its name suggests. One of his current favorites at the shop is a vegan blueberry ginger coconut, which reads to him as "a grown-up Flintstones push pop."

While some shops focus only on the soft stuff, perennial favorites like New York's Morgenstern's and OddFellows are also venturing into the soft-serve world. The latter has popped up with a summer carnival, where cymbal-clapping monkeys and circus-themed objects abound, and where composed treats like the Concession Stand, a salted-caramel triple threat with a popcorn topping, steal the show.

Adding toppings to a cone at OddFellows | Photo: Wyatt Conlon

But it's not just ice cream shops that are getting in on the game. Restaurants, bakeries and even coffee shops are going soft as well. Greg Baxtrom, chef at always-buzzing Olmsted in Brooklyn, recently added a soft-serve machine to the restaurant's picturesque backyard.

And though you might not expect to find some of a city's best ice cream at a coffee shop, a trip to Supercrown Coffee Roasters in Brooklyn will prove you wrong. Owner Darleen Scherer remembers Mister Softee of childhood yore with love: "It tastes like summer vacation," she says. Building off the shop's beloved milkshake, she introduced a coffee soft-serve earlier this year to "take the coffee experience to a different place."

You'll also find cones with a buzz at Dominique Ansel's seasonal soft-serve window, where he's rotating in cold brew topped with anise biscotti and milk foam. At least until August, when it rotates for peach tea, and September, which brings dark chocolate olive oil. Despite these creative options, Ansel is a purist: "A lot of people ask me what my favorite ice cream flavor is, and I always say vanilla—it's such a simple and clean flavor, but it's hard to do right."

Cold brew soft serve with anise biscotti and milk foam | Photo: Dominique Ansel Kitchen

Summer's proliferation of this frozen treat is about more than novelty though. As The Washington Post points out, there's the added bonus of not having to carve out freezer real estate required for traditional ice cream. And the "set-it and forget-nature of the dessert" makes it attractive to chefs like Mason Hereford of New Orleans newcomer Turkey and the Wolf. "I'm not good at desserts," he freely admits, "so we decided to get soft-serve to send sweets to the masses." He calls it a "power bottom" for the toppings like the crowd-pleasing Key Lime Crunk Chunks, which are like Key lime pie on Opposite Day: most parts graham cracker crust, one part custard.

Another factor in soft-serve's widespread success? It's so hard to make at home. As Malek puts it, "It's filling a sweet tooth-satisfying niche that we forgot was so important to our daily lives." Baxtrom also leans into the inevitable nostalgia. "It's like French and Italian food," he says. "They will always come back in style, because it's what people like."

Finally, as Tsang points out, "There's a sense of urgency that forces people to enjoy the dessert right then and there." Because if you stop enjoying it for even a second, it's just going to melt away from you—much like summer itself.

  • Supercrown Coffee Roasters

    New York, NY

    Darleen Scherer found her machine on the Bowery, but in a much different state than its current snazzy aqua one: "It needed quite a bit of work to be resuscitated," she says. After a custom paint job by the pros at Liemco Ltd., it was ready to make Supercrown's coffee soft-serve. It's a blend of Ronnybrook cream, homemade coffee syrup that has notes of chocolate, black cherry and toffee—which sounds like a sundae begging to happen.

    Photo: Supercrown Coffee Roasters

  • Tusk

    Portland, OR

    You'll find the dreamy dessert at the Middle Eastern-inspired hot spot, where pastry chef Nora Antene's soft-serve flavor rotates—and each one is as good as the last. The base uses milk powder for added creaminess, and this current version is a layered delight of halva soft-serve with hot fudge, salted peanuts and berries.

    Photo: Ryan Dirks/Tusk

  • Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery

    New York, NY

    Umber Ahmad, founder of the West Village bakery, finds it's the classic traditional vanilla bean and dark chocolate flavors she offers that are true fan favorites. But it's the toppings that shine; they take what you already know and bump it up a notch. "It's a way for us to playfully celebrate childhood memories with being kitschy. We're not putting a kitten on top of this; we're putting candied hazelnuts and vanilla meringue kisses." (All made in-house, might we add.)

    Photo: Umber Ahmad

  • Made Nice

    New York, NY

    Just because you also own the restaurant just voted Best in the World doesn't mean you can't have fun with ice cream. The express version of Eleven Madison Park has a milk and honey soft-serve that's based off the restaurant's staple dessert, and is topped with honey brittle, oat shortbread, milk meringue and buckwheat honey.

    Photo: Evan Sung

  • Turkey and the Wolf

    New Orleans, LA

    Chef/owner Mason Hereford came up with the idea to put Potato Stix on ice cream, thanks to his habit of adding Cheez-Its to Blue Bell. Other toppings include a Michael Solomonov-inspired duo of tahini with date molasses And a savory snack food combo of dry-roasted peanuts, potato chips and homemade Cheez-Its from chef de cuisine Colleen Quarls's grandma's cheese straw recipe.

    Photo: Mason Hereford

  • Olmsted

    Brooklyn, NY

    The flavors will rotate as the season goes on (sour cherry: coming to a restaurant garden near you), but here, it's a swirl of vanilla violet and strawberry. There's also the option to add Magic Shell, which chef Greg Baxtrom says reminds him of summers in the Midwest growing up with his family.

    Photo: Evan Sung

  • OddFellows Ice Cream Co.

    New York, NY

    New Yorkers love this ice cream shop for its flavors like Thai tea and miso cherry, but this summer, OddFellows is softening up—specifically, with a menu of carnival-inspired treats at a pop-up in bustling Soho. We took it upon ourselves to try them all, and The Pink Dip came out on top: a tall pile of raspberry sherbet soft-serve topped with hard, pink-tinted dip; freeze-dried raspberries; and gold dust.

    Photo: Wyatt Conlon

  • Soft Swerve

    New York, NY

    Soft Swerve cofounders Michael Tsang and Jason Liu were used to finding ube amped up with evaporated milk, beans and jellies in the Filipino dessert halo-halo but wanted to isolate the nutty purple yam flavor, which they saw as "the star of the show."

    Photo: Soft Swerve

  • Sfoglina

    Washington, D.C.

    Chef Fabio Trabocchi says "eating soft-serve imparts an immediate comfort few other treats provide." And once you spoon into his simple yet refined chocolate and vanilla gelato swirl, you'll taste exactly what he means.

    Photo: Greg Powers

  • Insa

    Brooklyn, NY

    Go for the Korean barbecue, stay for the karaoke and stay even longer for the silky soft-serve topped with five-spice with toasted peanut honeycomb, toasted sesame oil and Korean sea salt. Or you could opt for the other current offering: a refreshing combo of spiced blueberry compote, herby perilla, and mint and ginger crumble.

    Photo: Insa

  • Lilia

    Brooklyn, NY

    Chef Missy Robbins is known for making everyone swoon over mile-long ribbons of malfadini and fried cacio e pepe, but if you don't save room for dessert, you'll regret it—especially when this chocolate soft-serve gelato is at stake. It's topped with salted hazelnuts, espresso-chocolate powder and candied citrus.

    Photo: Evan Sung

  • Dominique Ansel Kitchen

    New York, NY

    "I'll always love the burrata," Dominique Ansel says of the seasonal window's classic flavor, which simmers fresh burrata with milk, sugar and sea salt before triple straining it for maximum smoothness. It comes topped with balsamic caramel, micro basil and confit strawberry for one incredible summer treat.

    Photo: Dominique Ansel Kitchen

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