Sister Time at Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream in Brooklyn

Two weeks ago, my two sisters and I met up in New York City for a 30-hour sisterly adventure. We did this last year and enjoyed ourselves so much that we simply had to do it again! The Big Apple is a good central meeting place for the three of us, coming from DC, Boston, and Connecticut. K was kind enough to find us a room at the Hyatt hotel near Times Square, and we used that as a home base. We packed in a lot of fun between Saturday lunchtime and Sunday evening: shopping at Rituals and Eataly, dinner at the veggie-forward Dirty Candy, petting dogs at Madison Square Park, and a yoga class at MangOh. I find that spending “special time” with my sisters, especially overnight, is very therapeutic.

On Saturday afternoon, the three of us jumped in an Uber to head to Brooklyn for a bite of lunch and to visit my dear girlfriend Elysia and some of her friends at a going-away party. While we only spent a couple hours in Brooklyn, my sisters and I agreed that it was VERY hip and eccentric. Luckily, we happened to walk by one of Brooklyn’s hottest joints: Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream‘s Williamsburg location. While I can’t remembering hearing anything about the company, Ava first learned about Van Leeuwen’s ice cream when the company catered one of her friend’s dog’s birthday party (I can’t wrap my head around that). She told us that they were known for innovative vegan flavors, and we were sold!

Source: Van Leeuwen’s website

Van Leeuwen started as an artisan ice-cream truck in 2008, serving ice cream across the city. They built up quite a fan base and now have eight (8!) locations, scattered across the NYC area and Los Angeles. But, staying true their roots, Van Leeuwen still operates several ice-cream trucks seasonally and for private events.

The store was fairly busy for a late winter afternoon, with families and groups of friends sharing cones and cups of ice cream. The shop itself was a mix of modern and old-fashioned, with plenty of seating for guests. My only disappointment was that you can’t see the ice creams… they are hidden behind the counter in big metal tubs.

Van Leeuwen’s menu looks clean and simple, but there are MANY flavors to choose from. There are about a dozen “classic” ice cream flavors that are staples on the menu, along with 8 vegan versions and a selection of “special” flavors. Some of the “classic” flavors are quite traditional like Vanilla, Chocolate, Mint Chip, and Cookies + Cream, but several are unique, like Earl Grey Tea, Passionfruit Layer Cake, and Honeycomb.  The vegan offerings include Salted Chocolate, Matcha Green Tea, and Caramelized Banana Nut. And the “specials”? They were special indeed: Pumpkin Pie, Salted Caramel Rocky Road, Sour Cream Apple Cider Doughnut, and more.

But when I saw Honeycomb on the menu, I had no choice but pick it! Honeycomb candy is very popular in Australia, where our dad grew up, and is the star of one my favorite chocolate bars of all time: Violet Crumble.  Sadly, honeycomb desserts aren’t easy to find here in the U.S.! I ordered a single-scoop in a cone. Carolyn went with a cone of Vegan Dark Chocolate, and Ava ordered a cup of Peanut Butter Marshmallow Crunch. At $5.50 a pop, these single scoops were pricey. But, boy, were they pretty…

Left to right: Honeycomb, Peanut Butter Marshmallow Crunch, Vegan Chocolate

The verdict? Overall, we were impressed with Van Leeuwen’s ice cream! The Honeycomb was the color of caramel, with thick swirls of softened, chewy honeycomb. The sweet-cream ice cream base was rich and milky, and served at the perfect temperature (cold but not rock-hard). Carolyn’s Vegan Dark Chocolate scoop was a chocolate-lover’s dream, with an intense cocoa taste that masked that ubiquitous flavor of coconut milk. You could have thought it was full-dairy ice cream! While Ava enjoyed her Peanut Butter Marshmallow Crunch, she thought it was a tad too icy and could have used some more marshmallow to counter-act the rich peanut-butter flavor. We all agreed that the serving sizes were perfect — just big enough to be satisfying but not spoil your dinner! I can’t wait to return to Van Leeuwen to sample some more of their other flavors!

The Stats:
Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream (multiple locations in New York and Los Angeles)
204 Wythe Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11249
(929) 337-6907
www.vanleeuwenicecream.com

A Girls’ Night In with 16 Handles

A couple weekends ago, I took a bus from DC to New York City to spend a night with Kris, one of my college roommates and dearest friends. Kris has a glamorous (but demanding) career in the PR/fashion world. And while she may attend high-profile dinners and galas, Kris still loves a low-key girls’ night as much as I do. Given our busy schedules this summer summer, we were both looking forward to a night of girl talk, cocktails, and ice cream.

We dined al fresco at an adorable Mexican restaurant in Kris’ neighborhood, enjoying guacamole and fancy versions of margaritas and sangria. Unlike most Manhattan restaurants, the staff here didn’t make us feel rushed, and we lingered over our drinks and food for a couple hours. We eventually decided to head back to Kris’ apartment to watch a movie. Kris knew that I was looking to sample NYC ice cream, so she mentioned that we’d pass her favorite frozen yogurt spot – 16 Handles – on our walk back.

The first 16 Handles store opened in NYC back in 2008. And in just five years, it’s become the most popular self-serve frozen yogurt chain in the city – with stores beginning to pop up in other East Coast cities. Obviously, I wanted to know what all the excitement was about!

It wasn’t difficult to spot 16 Handles; bright neon sign, colorful storefront, and lots of people. The line to the soft-serve machines was vey long, but it moved surprisingly quickly. Plus, the wait time was very enjoyable… thanks to the employee walking down the line offering to grab samples for everyone. I asked to sample the Peanut Butter, which was top-notch. Rich and creamy, it tasted like real peanut butter – no hint of that strange artificial flavor sometimes found in pb ice creams.

Before long, Kris and I were grabbing our empty cups and contemplating the sixteen different flavors available that night. Yes, there are sixteen handles to pull at 16 Handles. You can choose to fill your cup with one flavor (boring!) or all sixteen. Consistent with the modern vibe of the store, the flavor names are posted on bright LED screens. As a gluten-free girl, I really appreciated how 16 Handles identifies its gluten-free flavors with little icons on these screens.

16 Handles seems to offer a flavor for everyone – including people looking for low-fat or no-sugar-added frozen yogurt. For the vegans and lactose intolerant, 16 Handles offers non-dairy sorbet flavors (including Watermelon and Berry Melody). I usually refrain from mixing fruity sorbets with regular dairy flavors after a particularly unpleasant combination (watermelon mocha, anyone?). In the end, I pulled three handles: the Chocolate Love Affair, Salted Caramel, and New York Cheesecake (in honor of NYC). The toppings bar was the best I’ve seen – with plenty of healthy fruit, colorful sprinkles, kid-approved cereal, and one-of-a-kind specialties (including the seasonal “bananas foster”, which was essentially banana slices covered in brown-sugar syrup). I kept it simple and topped my frozen yogurt with rainbow sprinkles, mini chocolate and yogurt chips, and a few toffee chunks.

Because we were still full from dinner, Kris and I asked to take our creations “to go.” The efficient staff quickly weighed our cups before packaging them up. Knowing how expensive everything is in New York City, I was surprised that each of our servings cost less than five dollars! We paid and continued on to Kris’ apartment, where we popped our 16 Handles bag into the freezer. We then relaxed on Kris’ couch, watching the first Sex and the City movie (i.e. the best one) until we had an appetite for dessert!

The verdict? Go ahead, you can add my name to the list of 16 Handles fans. Not only was the self-serve experience fun, but this frozen yogurt was top-notch. Despite an hour in the freezer, my frozen yogurt was smooth and creamy  – more like great soft-serve ice cream than low-fat frozen yogurt. The New York Cheesecake had that distinct cheesecake flavor, but it was mild enough to pair well with almost any other flavor. I really liked the Chocolate Love Affair, as it tasted more like dark chocolate than milk. But my absolute favorite flavor was Salted Caramel. Unlike some versions I’ve tried, 16 Handles’ flavor has that deep, buttery caramel taste without being, well, salty. After all, the theory behind salted caramel is that a pinch of salt enhances the taste of caramel – not that salt should be a separate flavor! I was impressed that such a complex flavor could be achieved in frozen yogurt. Sure, 16 Handles may be trendy – but I think this is one trend that’s here to stay.

The Stats:
16 Handles
Various locations in NYC and beyond
http://16handles.com