Ice Age: NYC's Frozen-Dessert Revolution

Jonathan Zeller

It may seem like a trained monkey could operate a successful ice-cream shop during the blistering New York City summer. When it's 100 degrees outside, it's almost a reflex to pull out your wallet to pay for something—anything—cold and edible. But in the past few years, perhaps due to a marketplace crowded with people who figure that, as ice-cream maker Ben Van Leeuwen puts it, "[ice cream] is sort of a safe thing to try and sell," New York has witnessed an explosion in frozen-dessert innovation. Artisanal shops are using natural and organic ingredients, pushing boundaries by serving unusual flavors—durian, mastic and "Sunday Brunch," for example—and even creating new categories of dessert, including goat-milk ice cream and soft-serve fruit.

Coffee flavor with blueberries and Vermont maple. Photo: Laura Miller

Culture: An American Yogurt Company
331 Fifth Ave., 718-499-0207, Park Slope, Brooklyn
Dekalb Market, 138 Willoughby St., Downtown Brooklyn
Tart, Greek-style frozen yogurt might not exactly qualify as new—perhaps you've heard of Pinkberry—but this cozy joint serves the stuff its own way, doing just about everything on-site. Fresh, hormone-free (and, depending on the flavor, organic) milk is pasteurized, incubated and strained. The staff adds homemade toppings like key lime pie, oatmeal cookies and "Vermont maple" (made with pecans, vanilla beans and cinnamon) at the bottom and top of cups, eliminating the need for eaters to employ crafty strategies to make them last. The plain flavor has more than enough kick, but there's also a rotating cast of other varieties like blueberry pie and coffee (made with Stumptown, a brand beloved by java snobs). Jenny Ammirati—who used to work in finance—and her husband, Gino, started the place after realizing, in the midst of a big Greek yogurt–eating phase, "we can probably make this." The idea to freeze it came later, but they also do sell the fresh kind, which may be a boon to business when winter comes.

Sushi ice cream. Photo: Laura Miller

63 Fifth Ave., 718-230-0910, Park Slope, Brooklyn
Asked why she started combination Thai restaurant and ice-cream parlor SkyIce, Sutheera Denprapa explains, "When I open my fridge, it's only ice cream." This could be one reason she pursues some bold flavor choices, including black sesame seaweed, Japanese eggplant coconut green curry and rhubarb lily; if you're eating an ice cream–only diet, you have to get your vitamins in somehow. Denprapa and her colleagues test the flavors rigorously and give out samples before deciding they've been refined enough to sell; so even if they sound strange, they are all proven crowd-pleasers. Traditionalists needn't worry, as the Park Slope eatery also features standbys like vanilla and (inevitably these days) salted caramel. The presentation is inspired: in a "sushi ice cream" plate, different flavors and toppings are doppelgängers for seaweed, fish, rice and wasabi. SkyIce strives to use organic ingredients whenever possible, although it is often challenging when trying to create traditional Thai flavors—and we did notice one bottle of Hershey's syrup. If you're dining with friends who would like savory food, SkyIce offers full meals prepared by Denprapa's partner, Kanlaya Chujit. The no-carb pad Thai, made with papaya noodles, is especially popular.

The Soft Serve Fruit Co. Photo: Laura Miller

The Soft Serve Fruit Co
25 E. 17th St., 212-675-0550, Union Square, Manhattan
1371 Third Ave., 212-794-2200, Upper East Side, Manhattan
Michael Sloan—a triathlete and one of The Soft Serve Fruit Co's founders—loved to fuel up for workouts with frozen bananas. He and his partners, Chloe Epstein (a former Manhattan assistant district attorney) and Jason Epstein (who works in finance), turned those bananas—along with blueberries, mangoes and other fruits—into a new soft-serve, fat-free, gluten-free vegan dessert. Then, company president Daniel Karsevar stepped in and took on the challenge of telling customers what, exactly, they're selling. "The most interesting thing is to have that dialogue every day with people," he says, noting that he often must explain, "It's not yogurt." Here's what "soft-serve fruit"—a type of sorbet—is: fruit, sugar and water. Yogurt it's not, but a cup of the blueberry flavor with chocolate chips really hits the spot on a hot day. And those who are watching their waistlines will be glad to see nutrition facts posted in large type right on the wall. The Soft Serve Fruit Co also offers salted pretzel cones, which provide a savory counterbalance to the sweet main event. The atmosphere at the Union Square location is fruit-infused and tropical down to the last detail—signage, for example, is made from repurposed fruit crates.

Shaved ice. Photo: Laura Miller

People's Pops
118 First Ave., 347-850-2388, East Village, Manhattan
The High Line, Tenth Avenue and West 16th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan
425 W. 15th St., Chelsea, Manhattan
808 Union St., Park Slope, Brooklyn
Brooklyn Flea, 176 Lafayette Ave., Fort Greene, Brooklyn
Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg, 27 N. 6th St., Williamsburg, Brooklyn
New Amsterdam Market, South Street (bet. Beekman Street and Peck Slip), Financial District, Manhattan
When Clyde, who served us at People's Pops, claimed his product didn't melt as easily as competitors', we thought it might just be a marketing boast. But after our pop maintained its shape through 10 minutes of direct sunlight on a 90-degree day, we had to admit we were impressed. People's Pops' proprietors buy farmers'-market fruit and stew or roast it and remove the juice, leaving a hearty pulp; they then add simple syrup and some herbs and freeze the mixture. You can distinctly pick out the main ingredients—like rhubarb and ginger or "straight-up yellow plum" in each lick—unlike some ice pops where the overwhelming taste is sugar. The company uses the leftover juice for syrups that go into their shaved ice. "It's part of the philosophy," explains co-owner David Carrell, "of using every part of the animal, or every part of the fruit." Also part of the People's Pops philosophy? They're open only seven months a year, from April through October (some locations operate May through November). Those are the best months to get in-season fruit, but Carrell also says, "If someone is outside looking for shaved ice in February, I don't want anything to do with them." Then he backs off a bit: "Maybe that's a little cruel, but you know what I'm saying. It gets really hot in NYC in the summer, so that's what we cater to."

Chocolate and vanilla ice-cream sundae. Photo: Laura Miller

Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream
632 Manhattan Ave., Greenpoint, Brooklyn
81 Bergen St., 347-763-2979, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn
48½ E. 7th St., East Village, Manhattan
When you see the refined, almost Victorian-looking font on the pastel yellow Van Leeuwen ice-cream truck shipping high-butterfat joy to every corner of New York City, you might imagine that it's part of a century-old company maintaining traditions handed down through the generations. But you'd be wrong. Founder Ben Van Leeuwen was 24 years old when he started selling his namesake ice cream in 2008. Still, he does things the old-fashioned way. Speaking about some other ice-cream makers, he says, "If you look at their ingredients, you'll say, 'Wait, how is this ice cream? There are no eggs, but there's locust bean gum.'" He says the difference in his product—which is produced at a farm upstate and, as of recently, in Pennsylvania and Greenpoint, Brooklyn—is that he uses "tons of [hormone-free] cream and tons of egg yolks, which are the two most expensive parts." In addition to staple flavors like vanilla, gianduja (chocolate and hazelnut) and mint chip, the company's big hits right now are rum raisin made with eight-year-old Barbancourt rum and a coconut chip made with organic coconut and 72% Askinosie chocolate chips. Sorbets will be available again this summer, and vegan desserts are in the works.

Baked/Unbaked and Chocolate 3 Ways ice-cream cone. Photo: Laura Miller

Ample Hills
623 Vanderbilt Ave., 347-240-3926, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn
Ample Hills owner Brian Smith—a former screenwriter who's responsible for such monster films as Alien Express, starring Lou Diamond Phillipsprides himself on running the most-homemade ice-cream shop in the City. "We're the only place that I've been able to find that makes everything from beginning to end, cracking eggs and combining everything in a pasteurizer on-site and on display," he says. Smith's not kidding about the on-display part: there's a window into the kitchen where every step of the process is labeled and explained, making the shop double as a veritable ice-cream museum. The flavors, by the way, are obviously the product of a creative mind. For example, "Sunday Brunch" is made with maple syrup, cinnamon and French toast bits. Smith sees similarities between creating movie blockbusters and innovative flavors. "It's all the same process of research and experimentation," he explains, "stealing a bit here and there and then coming up with your own twist on stuff." One big difference, though: "The people in the ice-cream world are a little more fun to be around."

Mastic Dream. Photo: Laura Miller

Victory Garden
31 Carmine St., 212-206-7273, West Village, Manhattan
When Sophia Brittan first tested her brainchild—soft-serve goat-milk ice cream—an early taster thought she was a "complete freak show" (her words). Judging by the public's reaction to her new shop, no one is freaked out now. Goat milk is lower in fat than cow's milk, suitable for lactose-intolerant folk and quite appetizing. Victory Garden's comes from farms in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, and there is a picture of one of the happy-looking goats on the shop's wall. The milk is pasteurized and turned into ice cream and yogurt right at the shop. In addition to the plain flavor, salted caramel (there it is again), chocolate and the other usual suspects, Brittan is especially fond of mastic, which has a floral taste. Unusual in America, it's a common ice-cream variety in Turkey and Greece. "Mastic is used for so many things," she says. "It cleans your breath, it kills gingivitis, it's good for digestion," and, of course, "I just really like the flavor." In keeping with the holistic-health theme, the shop also sells other products made from goat milk, including caramel and soap.

Chocolate-chip cookie and brown butter–candied bacon ice cream. Courtesy, Coolhaus

Truck (various locations), 347-640-4287, Manhattan
Coolhaus founder Natasha Case, a UCLA architecture graduate, takes cues from the built environment when creating her organic ice-cream sandwiches. She calls her discipline "farchitecture"—a combination of food and architecture (nothing smellier, immature readers). There could be no better place for such a discipline than NYC, home to the world's most recognizable skyline. The Coolhaus truck is frequently set up underneath the High Line, which has inspired the "High Lime" flavor: lime ice cream between graham-cracker cookies. Other inventive varieties include the "violent" Lambrusco flavor, which was created for the movie 2012 but stuck because customers liked it so much. And, as any responsible gonzo dessert creator is wont to do these days, Coolhaus has also created a foie gras flavor. In a super-green touch, you can even eat the wrappers here. Are they any good? Case diplomatically notes that the packaging is "not about the taste." It's all-natural, though, and does reduce waste.

Vanilla and strawberry ice cream with chocolate-chip cookie. Photo: Alex Lopez

Blue Marble Ice Cream
196 Court St., 718-858-0408, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn
186 Underhill Ave., 718-399-6926, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn
Brooklyn Flea, 176 Lafayette Ave., Fort Greene, Brooklyn
Brooklyn Bridge Park, Piers 1 and 6, Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn
Governors Island
Having set up shop in 2007, Blue Marble qualifies as virtually ancient among New York City's artisanal ice-cream purveyors. The milk used in making the ice cream here comes from in-state farmers, flavors are all-natural and none of the ice cream contains corn syrup or preservatives. Interesting varieties include Grape-Nuts and Cinnamon. Blue Marble's earth-friendliness doesn't stop at the ice cream itself: the stores' energy is provided by wind and water power, and the cups and spoons are compostable. Countertops are made from recycled materials, and the proprietors selected materials from Brooklyn's own Bettencourt Green Building Supplies to avoid the use of chemicals and minimize their impact on the environment.