Considering its inherent associations with smoke-belching Mr. Softee trucks, and corporate franchises such as Carvel and Dairy Queen (not to mention that it’s typically a pre-mixed, highly-processed, low quality product, composed of up to 60% air), soft serve has long been low on the totem pole on the ice cream world — it’s somewhat nostalgic and satisfies a sugar craving, but generally nothing to get roused about.
So it’s certainly no surprise that its hard-packed, milk fat-saturated sibling was first to attain artisanal glory, becoming the Madagascar vanilla and Michel Cluizel chocolate-flavored focus of contentious indie shops around New York. Yet since there’s nary a subject left unexplored, in the city’s current quest for constant culinary innovation, soft serve has nonetheless been thrust smack into the spotlight.
It started with a few early innovators such as Big Gay Ice Cream (home of the infamous Salty Pimp) and the avant-garde Dominique Ansel, who expanded his repertoire from epicurean cones (burrata, olive oil, cold-brew), to whimsical constructs such as “What-A-Melon,” whose interior ribbons of piped soft sorbet actually help keep its outer watermelon shell crisp. But within the past year, machine-dispensed swirls have inspired a slew of dedicated businesses, from Milk & Cream (which merges soft serve with another burgeoning trendlet, cereal, to produce signature sundaes like Froot Berry Bliss, Apple Jack Avalanche and Chocolate Cocoa Crunch), to Asian-inspired, Instagrammer favorites like Soft Swerve — whose vibrantly-hued sweets are stained with black sesame, green tea and ube purple yam — and Taiyaki, where the feather-light ice cream gapes from the mouths of fish-shaped pancake cones.
Soft serve is at peak popularity in Brooklyn, where it’s the thrust of Andrew Carmellini’s William Vale-located food truck, Mister Dips (try the “Berry Gibbs,” with boozy strawberries and whipped cream), and a new favorite at both Roberta’s and Lilia’s casual, adjacent café’s (look for coconut-culantro custard at the former, and soft gelato at the latter). But the fact that it’s taken over the borough’s top-tier restaurants as well is a whole lot more telling; the James Beard-acknowledged Olmsted funnels its garden-to-table ethos into vanilla-violet and strawberry-rhubarb cones (culled from a machine that lives in its very own shed, next to the eatery’s tub of crawfish), while at no-waste trailblazer, Sunday in Brooklyn, soft serve is refined enough to make the in-house dessert menu; think dairy-free dark chocolate, crowned with sugar crisps and toasted marshmallow, and black raspberry paired with citrus meringue and mint.
Forget about hard ice cream, it seems that Mr. Softee has some stiff city competition.
Big Gay Ice Cream
125 E 7th St
189 Spring St, New York, NY 10012
Milk and Cream
159 Mott St
85B Allen St
119 Baxter St
111 N 12th St
567 Union Ave
659 Vanderbilt Ave
Sunday in Brooklyn
348 Wythe Ave