There’s no rhyme or reason why the ice cream scene is poppin’ so hard in the Bay Area. Beyond the few parlors mentioned above, there are infinitely more independent ice cream shops all churning out their very own treats. As the Romans would like to say, produzione propria gelato, or go home; San Franciscans apparently take this to heart.
In May, I had the opportunity to force 4 fine establishments into my gullet within 1 day. This was a rare chance to consecutively sample an inordinate amount of ice cream which most sane, intelligent people wouldn’t normally afford themselves. And to toot my own unbiased horns, creameries from both Bays were covered, creameries from different SF city districts were covered, ditto to Berkeley. Here we go:
First, I’ci. I am melo-emo over this place. Instant tranquility once the threshold is crossed despite the constant mob. Mary Caneles belongs to the Chez Panisse family tree, ’nuff said. I’ci bears the grace of a room planned by bridezillas obsessed with HGTV and pastel wedding colors. The room, with the purposeful sneak peak into the kitchen, screams: “I am Slow(er) food than you”. But I love it. I want to drink it up.
This is the essence of all that is right with Alice Waters’ disciples. Metal tasting spoons offer water conservation and old school parlor freel. Herbal flavors carry locally grown produce; nearly all organic ingredients; “chocolate .. piped into the bottom to fill the hole of handmade cone”; mostly simple, yet delectable flavor combination. NO BROWN BREAD, NO FOIE GRAS, NO SHTICK. And it tastes good! Creamy as buttermilk can be, not too fattening, not too overpowering. The orange rosemary toffee & honey lavender combo would please every Francophile. Just completely adorable despite the N. Oakland gentrifying crowd.
For the complete Berkeley Chez Panisse infused experience, come after a quick sammie at Bakesale Betty. I am so in love with the entire Slow-Cal food it’s disgusting.
Second up, Sketch. Full disclosure: I’ve previously visited at least twice. That is not to say I prefer Sketch over others. Blame the multiple visits on my brother’s school locale. Since the last visit, Sketch began serving “gelato” in “soft serve” machines. They still call themselves an ice cream parlor tho the interior now looks a bit like Yogurtland with the adorning machines. This particular Berkeley institution is like… the hippie gone Republican: high falutin’, righteous, with a self-declared cultural relevance bearing a hint of artsiness. God, get the F over yourself. Your soft serve, while still locally produced, can no longer hang, especially in the uncharming service environment. I still want my ice cream/gelato to be SCOOPED, not pooped, into a cup/cone. Don’t scowl at me because I’m a tourist carrying a camera, not here to steal your trade secrets, a*hole.
What flavors did I get? I don’t even care to tell you. It was fine. Nothing stood out. Something lavender, ya know, for your inner flower child.
Bi-rite, Bi-rite. Everyone knows the story. All I want to know as an outta-towner was: is it worth the line. Flavors obtained that sunny, yet chilly afternoon before pizza at Delfina: salted caramel, malt vanilla, lavender honey. All good but quite expensive. Lavender was my theme during this rundown. I think I wanted to smell, think, eat, and taste “pretty” that afternoon. There was a very balanced lavender profile, perhaps a bit stronger than even Ici’s. The combo of salted caramel and malt vanilla was just too overbearing. Salted caramel was too sugary and rich and salty at the same time. Malt vanilla was sadly dwarfed by He-man salted caramel. It’s hard not to like this place with its faux old school charm. Bon Ap just ranked this shop top 10 in the nation. Hell! They grow their own produce!
Finally, the rockstar of the SF ice cream scene, Humphry Slocombe. Think post modern ice cream from an experienced pastry chef. At only half a year of age, HS is already challenging Bi-Rite for a stronghold of the SF dessert scene. Yes, Gourmet noticed as well. Here, the Mckevoy olive oil and infamous Secret Breakfast were ordered. As Ms. Liberty Huang likes to say “mmmmm secret breakfast is my fav slocombe flavor”. Yes, I gravitated to a popularized busy variety, but I used my noodles and managed to counter balance with an extremely simple, slightly savory profile. By now, the single speed riding hipsters of LA are screaming: “it’s just like Scoops”! Relax son, it’s not. This guy’s a chef. He shops the market for inspiration and roasts prosciutto bones with herbs as ice infusions. Unlike Scoops, the funked ice cream flavors also has great texture and mouth feel. The final amazing bit of Slocombe’s endearment? Reasonable prices. Ice cream coup complete.
The bottom line.
All you really want to know is, what’s the best. Screw the best. The “B” words forces this stigma of inferiority onto others. Besides Sketch, every one of these shops are highly effective tongue pleasers. Humphry Slocombe is edgy and new, people are still scared by it. Bi-Rite is an institution still unmolested by tourists, a palatable alternative to Mitchell’s. Ici is the East Bay darling carrying the Chez Panisse panache and pedigree. SF is a great Ice cream town, period.
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