Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Scoop on Dining: In Line at Ici

We’re getting an early preview of summer in the Bay Area right now with the heat, so you know everyone’s thinking about ice cream, sorbet, gelato and other ways to cool off. I rarely eat ice cream because I’m not big on sweets (or fat), but there’s always something nice about a smooth, hand-made ice cream or gelato as you’re walking around the neighborhood on a beautiful sunny day.

I recently went to get my haircut in the Elmwood neighborhood of Berkeley. And while there are a few restaurants in the area, I think one of main attractions these days is the 9-month-old Ici ice cream store. Ici, which means “here” in French, sells hand-made ice creams made with organic ingredients on the premises. (Thus the emphasis on “here.”) Co-owner Mary Canales (the former pastry chef at Chez Panisse) makes inspiring flavors that changes virtually day to day depending on what ingredients she gets her hands on.

During my first visit after my hair appointment, I strolled in and ordered two scoops of the burnt caramel and cardamom and orange peel (pictured right). I sat at the bench inside the quaint shop (designed by business partner Erik Anderson) and enjoyed the creamy texture of the ice cream. The burnt caramel had a subtle flavor and reminded me of espresso ice cream, while the cardamom was bright, fresh and delicious! I have a bias toward citrus flavors, but I think this flavor would brighten anyone’s day.

I returned to Ici last weekend (for more flavor testing, of course), and saw a crowd of people outside. This was a Sunday afternoon—prime time for ice cream consumption. It inspired me to do a photo essay similar to what I did waiting in line at Tartine Bakery. But in this case, I already knew it would be worth waiting in line for the ice cream since I had been there a week earlier. So here’s a tour of Ici for those of you who haven’t checked out this Berkeley gem yet:

3:45 p.m.—Here I am at the end of the line outside the Ici store. They have this nice bench outside for people to enjoy the ice cream (or wait for people in line).
3:55 p.m.—I reach the “open” sign. This is when I begin to study what flavors I’m going to go with today. Canales does about 10 flavors a day, all seasonal, and they can really change daily. Last time I was there they had strawberry-rhubard ice cream and apricot sorbet, but this time those items were off the menu. (Also gone was my favorite cardamom and orange peel.) The flavors are primarily ice cream with a couple of sorbets (like mango during this visit).
3:58 p.m.—I step inside the tiny store. From the entrance you can look straight down the hallway to the kitchen and see people making ice cream. They always look pretty stress. I can see why with the lines.
4:02 p.m.—As I inch closer to the counter, I can still see through the window that the line continued to grow after me.
Part of Ici’s appeal is its quaint décor, including these signs showing the available flavors. Along with ice cream, I noticed a sign for “affogatto,” which is the Italian ice cream dessert where they pour espresso over vanilla ice cream. I was sooo tempted to order this since I had my first affogatto at Foreign Cinema and loved the combination!
4:04 p.m.—I reach the counter where today they had three people serving. Last time there was only one person. So they do plan for the peak hours. I order my typical two scoops, this time going with the new flavors “rose-pistachio” and “lemon-amareno cherry.” (I’d never heard of amareno but it’s apparently a sour cherry.) I typically order my ice cream in a cup because I don’t like to spill, but this time I wanted to try their cones, which cost an extra 50 cents.

4:06 p.m.—I stand in line to pay. I had to take this photo fast so I could start licking away at my ice cream. Mmmm, the rose-pistachio was sweet and nutty. I could really taste the fresh, crunchy pistachio. But the winner was the lemon-amareno cherry underneath. Just like the cardamom-orange, it was bright, fresh, tangy and uplifting. It almost made me feel like a kid again, so happy to be discovering new flavors. It was definitely lemony, and I love lemon flavors (so don’t get this if you’re a lemon-puss.) Total paid: $4.25 with cone. (BTW, the cone was light and flakey, but on this particular day the chocolate tip at the end made the cone a bit stale on the bottom.)
At the counter there were a whole bunch of other things to buy like cookies, cones and these orange peels. They’re all decorated in a very French flair.
I like how all their supplies are composted. Here you can dump your spoon and cups.

When I first walked into Ici last year soon after it first opened, I thought it was a bit pretentious. But now after having tried the flavors and quality, I feel lucky that I have access to such great ice cream on the East Bay. I won’t say it’s THE best ice cream around (I still prefer the texture of gelato), but I love the experimentation of flavors offered by Canales. Some are misses (I heard the Irish Stout flavor didn’t go off too well) but many of them are winners (I’m still dreaming of the lemon-amareno). Ici also sells bonbons and ice cream sandwiches that are pretty popular. I think next time I’m going back for the affogattto!

Ici, 2948 College Ave. (at Ashby), Berkeley. PH: 510.665.6054. Open daily from noon (except Monday when it opens later at 2 p.m.) until 9 p.m. (closing later at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday).


Anonymous said...

You know, I also had the same reaction to Ici. I liked it better the second time I went. I love that they have new flavors each time and that they're more than just the stand-by vanilla, chocolate or strawberry. I loved the chocolate malt. By the way, you should check out the new Bi-Rite Creamery ice cream shop in San Francisco (near Delfina and Tartine Bakery)...they're quickly becoming famous for their salted caramel ice cream. -- David

Chef Ben said...

Bi-Rite is next on my list. The last few times I was in San Francisco, it was too cold for ice cream. (I know, you're all saying it's never to cold for ice cream, but I'm of the group that believes ice cream tastes best in hot weather. Must be the Hawaii boy in me.)