I finally made it to Salt & Straw!

There are many “Best Ice Cream Shops in America” lists out there, but there’s only a couple shops that you’ll see time and time again. One of these is Salt & Straw in Portland, Oregon. Run by two cousins, Kim & Tyler Malek, Salt & Straw started as a tiny food cart operation. Today, it’s a massively-popular chain (with shops in Portland and Los Angeles) and is a towering figure on the national ice-cream scene. Salt & Straw was one of the first shops in the country to churn out totally wacky and unconventional ice-cream flavors using ingredients like black pepper and blue cheese. But it’s the high quality ice cream & attention to local ingredients that continues to earn Salt & Straw accolades from publications like The New York Times, Saveur, Food & Wine, Bon Appetit and even The Oprah Magazine!

Despite spending a lot of time in Washington State, I don’t seem to get down to Portland often enough. According to this blog, the last time I was here was 2012! While I knew of Salt & Straw back then, I failed to get myself to the shop during that short work trip. I did manage to sample the ice cream at Cool Moon, however, which I liked but didn’t love.

I finally had a chance to redeem myself last month, when I was in Portland to celebrate my college roommate’s wedding. It was a very busy weekend, full of wedding festivities and catching up with friends from college, so I had to make a point of getting to Salt & Straw…. it wouldn’t happen organically! Luckily, I was even able to round up a few friends to join me (thanks, Becca, Juan & Bryan!) on my Friday afternoon visit to the SE Division shop in Southeast Portland.

img_0688Having heard of hour-long waits, I was shocked to see no line outside of the shop! It was my lucky day. After a quick photo by the famous sign, our party of four headed inside. Salt & Straw’s SE Division shop is beautiful; it looks like a hipster’s take on a classic 1950s ice cream parlor. The interior is predominantly wood, but with bright accents of cherry red and chrome. Wafts of freshly-made waffle cones only adds to the atmosphere.

img_0689 Salt & Straw has developed hundreds of flavors, but their shops carry fewer than 20 flavors at any given time. About a dozen are “Classic Flavors” and are always available, and the remaining slots are dedicated to seasonal creations. Popular mainstays include Honey Lavender, Chocolate Gooey Brownie, Cinnamon Snickerdoodle, Arbequina Olive Oil, and Freckled Woodblock Chocolate. Today, the limited-edition “Late Summer Harvest Series” flavors sounded amazing: Sauvie Island Grapes PB&J, White Toast & Apple Butter, Sour Cream Fig Pie, Oregon Honeyed Rocky Road, and Bone Marrow & Smoked Cherries.

img_0690But the big question: What to order? The lovely and knowledgeable Ally patiently answered my questions and gave me a sample of the Freckled Woodblock Chocolate (her personal fave). I eventually settled on a double-scoop cup of two seasonal favors: the Bone Marrow & Smoked Cherries and Sauvie Island Grapes PB&J. One crazy flavor, one safe bet. When hearing about the blog, Ally shared some inside info: the bone marrow is from cows and is slow roasted, clarified, and then blended with sugar and cream for the base (i.e. no weird clumps of bone marrow). And the PB&J involves two forms of peanut butter (liquid and cereal) and the jam is homemade using local grapes.

picturesaltstrawPrices were what I expected: high, but not offensively so. My double-scoop was $5.95.

Bottom: Bone Marrow & Smoked Cherries; Top: Sauvie Island Grapes PB&J

Bottom: Bone Marrow & Smoked Cherries; Top: Sauvie Island Grapes PB&J

The verdict? Salt & Straw lives up to the hype. My friends and I were floored by the deliciousness of Salt & Straw’s ice cream, our eyes bulging in happy surprise as we took our first bites. This is ice cream made by people who deeply understand the science of ice cream. The ice cream was the ideal eating temperate, was rich but not too dense, and every mix-in retained its original state (not soggy but also not frozen solid). My flavors were sweet but not so sweet as to overwhelm the more subtle notes. I promise: the Bone Marrow & Smoked Cherries is good! Bone marrow may be a culinary trend, but I don’t go out of my way to eat it. The bone marrow just adds a bit of salt and umami flavor to the smooth ice cream, and the soft chunks of smoked Oregon Dark Sweet cherries add texture and familiarity. My other scoop – the Sauvie Island Grapes PB&J – was a dream; intense peanut-buttery flavor in light ice cream form. The homemade grape jam swirl brought me right back to childhood. The crunchy PB cereal bits were few and far between. These two scoops paired well with one another!

As I mentioned, my friends were equally as pleased with their order. Bryan’s Salted Stumptown Cold Brew Shake looked so creamy and inviting that I had to steal a couple sips. Oh-my-goodness was it yummy. I’m not one for shakes, but I would make an exception for this one. Smooth Stumptown cold brew blended with Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbon ice cream.

All in all, Salt & Straw totally lived up to my sky-high expectations. My only regret was not coming sooner!

The Stats:
Salt & Straw – SE Division
3345 SE Division Street
Portland, ME 92702
(multiple locations in Portland & Los Angeles)
www.saltandstraw.com

Gracie’s Ice Cream – Worthy of the Name?

Last fall, my sister Carolyn alerted me that a new ice cream shop had opened in Somerville, Massachusetts called “Gracie’s Ice Cream.” Since I shared a name with the shop, Carolyn said that I had an obligation to try it out. There was plenty of hype about the shop before it it opened, partially because there hadn’t been a homemade ice cream place in Somerville before. Located outside of Boston, Somerville isn’t a place  we frequent, but we knew we’d eventually have to make a special trip out to Gracie’s.

Recently, Carolyn identified the perfect opportunity to make this special trip. I was home for a long weekend, but our parents had to attend a wedding on Saturday evening in Boston. Instead of hanging out at home by myself, I followed my parents to Boston to have dinner with Carolyn, her boyfriend, and her three awesome roommates. Carolyn has lived with these girls for several years, and I always look forward to spending time with them. My sister, the smart woman she is, suggested that we have dinner in Somerville! We ended up having awesome cocktails and yummy dinners at Highland Kitchen before heading over to Gracie’s for dessert.

IMG_9192 IMG_9193Gracie’s is located in Union Square, a busy intersection in Somerville with many shops and restaurants. We spotted Gracie’s right away, with its bright white sign and logo. Inside, the shop was bright and inviting, with white walls and sleek wooden counters and tables. It was getting late, so there weren’t any other people in the shop besides us. Carolyn’s boyfriend and I were the only ones to order something, as everyone else claimed to be “too full” from dinner. Wimps!

IMG_9194 IMG_9195 Surprisingly, I had an easy time picking out two flavors to try at Gracie’s. There were just 12 flavors available, with a nice mix of traditional flavors (Vanilla Bean, Chocolate, and Mint Oreo) and unique creations. I really wanted to try Swiss Cake Roll (my favorite of the Little Debbie desserts) or Grape-Nut (think of the fiber!) but, alas, gluten and my tummy just don’t get along. The Salty Whiskey jumped out to me, probably because of my recent trip to the Talisker Distillery in Scotland. I also had to try the Black Sesame + Honey, as I’ve been on a tahini kick lately and simply cannot get enough of anything sesame-flavored.

IMG_8701 This “small” cup of Salty Whiskey and Black Sesame + Honey set me back $4 ($3.74 plus tax), but the scoops were pretty generous.

IMG_9196

Top scoop: Salted Whiskey; Bottom scoop: Black Sesame + Honey

The verdict? I really wanted to be “wowed” by this ice cream, but neither flavor knocked my socks off. The Black Sesame + Honey was light on both sesame and honey flavors. If someone were to give me a bite without telling me it was black sesame, I’d probably have trouble identifying it as such. Luckily, the Salty Whiskey was much more flavorful — the saltiness was spot-on for my tastes, and the strong whiskey aftertaste was easy to pick up on. I bet this flavor would complement a slice of pie or vanilla cake really well. While the ice cream was a bit too soft for my liking, it had a great texture: light, yet still creamy and rich. And while neither flavor was memorable, this Grace would be willing to give Gracie’s another try.

Please let me know if you’ve had better luck at Gracie’s!

The Stats:
Gracie’s Ice Cream
22 Union Square
Somerville, MA 02143
http://www.graciesicecre.am/

Crossed Off the Bucket List: San Francisco’s Bi-Rite Creamery

Many obsessive ice-cream hobbyists will tell you that they have a “bucket list,” or list of ice cream shops they’d like to visit during their lifetime. I don’t exactly have a bucket list (I want to try them all!), but there are some iconic ice cream shops that I dream of visiting. These include Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream’s original location in Columbus, Ohio, Salt & Straw in Portland, Oregon, the Penn State Creamery (where you can take a 7 day ice-cream science course), and a handful of others. Up until last month, Bi-Rite Creamery in San Francisco was high on that list.

Bi-Rite Creamery started out as a local neighborhood favorite in San Francisco’s Mission District, but it has gained national notoriety in recent years. Heck, one of the owners has even appeared on the Martha Stewart Show! The Creamery opened in 2006 as part of the Bi-Rite Market, a historic family-owned business across the street, and quickly took off. Co-owners Kris Hoogerhyde and Anne Walker share a commitment to locally grown and organic ingredients, and their ice creams are made by hand in small batches. They were two of the pioneers of the “locally sourced” movement that’s so popular among the trendy ice cream shops today

I finally got my chance to visit Bi-Rite Creamy during a recent work trip to San Francisco. I arrived a day early so I could grab dinner with a college roommate who lives in the Bay Area. Because of the time difference, I arrived in San Francisco with plenty of time to kill before dinner. It was a abnormally warm, summery day in San Francisco and ice cream sounded like a great way to cool off.

The Mission District was quick BART ride from my hotel on Union Square. The neighborhood was particularly busy this Sunday afternoon, and the people watching entertained me on the short walk to Bi-Rite Creamery. I knew that I was getting close when I passed the Bi-Rite Market, which looked smaller than I’d anticipated but so packed with shoppers that I didn’t dare venture inside.

I spotted the waiting line before I saw the Bi-Rite Creamery itself. For 3:30pm on a winter afternoon, this line was seriously impressive. Okay, it was 80 degrees out, but still! line at bi-riteLuckily, the line moved fairly quickly and I soon found myself inside. IMG_7139On any given day, there are well over a dozen flavors available at Bi-Rite. Some are staples of the menu, like Vanilla and Chocolate but also their famous Salted Caramel, Honey Lavender, and Balsamic Strawberry flavors. Whereas the Orange Cardamom, Earl Grey, and Maple Walnut were late-winter specials.

IMG_7141I had a difficult time picking flavors; the Roasted Banana with fudge swirl was very tempting. And if I didn’t have to avoid gluten, I would have definitely tried the infamous Ricanelas (cinnamon ice cream with snickerdoodle cookie pieces). In the end, I decided on the seasonal Crème Brûlée and the vegan Chocolate Coconut ice cream (made with local TCHO chocolate). Because so many people in my life are lactose-intolerant or vegan, I pay attention to non-dairy options. This one looked too good to pass up.

IMG_7140My mouth dropped when I saw gluten-free cones available. And they were FREE of charge! Major points for Bi-Rite!

My “single” cone came to $4.00, which isn’t cheap. But I’ve paid more for similar-sized cones of regular mass-produced ice cream, so I didn’t think the price was unreasonable.IMG_7144

The verdict? I have to admit that Bi-Rite Creamery is worth the hype! I was already impressed with the variety of flavors and the accommodations for special diets. But it was the ice cream itself that truly had me “wowed.” The Crème Brûlée was amazing. It has everything I love about the traditional dessert: a thick custard base and plenty of shards of blow-torched caramelized sugar. Like the real thing, this ice cream is seriously rich. It’s not something I could eat every day, but it was incredibly flavorful and fun to eat. I later learned that this flavor was created by Chase Cho, who won a recipe competition hosted by Bi-Rite. And I can see why this one! The vegan Chocolate Coconut also exceeded any expectations I had. While many coconut milk-based ice creams are heavy and dense, this one was light and velvety. The chocolate flavor was definitely predominant, with slight coconut undertones. I’d definitely recommend this to anybody who loves ice cream but avoids dairy.

All in all, Bi-Rite Creamery was everything I had hoped for. An innovative company with a serious commitment to fresh local ingredients and unique (yet authentic) flavors. I’m already looking out for an opportunity to return.

The Stats:
Bi-Rite Creamery
3692 18th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
http://biritecreamery.com/