Thursday, June 16, 2011

Smitten Ice Cream in San Francisco

The weather in the Bay Area has finally warmed up, just in time for the start of summer next week. And when the weather gets hot, everyone cools off with ice cream. The latest entry to artisan ice cream in San Francisco is Smitten Ice Cream in Hayes Valley.

I actually visited Smitten a few weeks ago, so the flavors I’m going to talk about may not be there if you visit now because Smitten makes its ice cream with locally sourced seasonal ingredients, although it does have a couple of standard everyday flavors.

When I first approached Smitten with my friend Ken, who lives nearby, I was surprised to find that it was pretty much a fancified shack or kiosk. For some reason I thought it might be a small shop on the tiny Linden Street alleyway, but it was really a shack.

I loved the chalkboard sign with the whimsical graphic illustrations of the ingredients, showcasing how the ice cream is made with natural ingredients. But the main twist to Smitten is that the ice cream is made to order using liquid nitrogen.

This isn’t my first taste of liquid nitrogen ice cream. Remember when I visited here in Chicago? So Smitten is pretty much the same idea, except it’s only been doing it since 2009 and they don’t let you create your own flavor. You have to order what they list on the menu.

The menu is also pretty limited. When I visited, there were only four flavors: vanilla and TCHO chocolate (considered the standards), and two seasonal flavors of salted caramel and rhubard. (I think right now they’re offering a summer herb flavor instead of the rhubard.)

Another thing about the made-to-order concept is that different flavors set at different times because of what’s inside; like the salted caramel takes a bit more time because of the salt. Because of this, you’re not allowed to mix flavors if you want to order a double scoop. So how did I get past this? I ordered one scoop each of two different flavors.

Ken was still full from our brunch, so he just ordered the kid’s size of the TCHO, which he thought was great and creamy. BTW, you can watch them create the ice cream, although it was a bit hard to see because of the screen they used to shade themselves from the sun. It takes about 5 to 10 minutes to get your ice cream.

My rhubard flavor came out first, and it had an odd texture and was a bit tart. Initially I thought it was too tart, but it was one of those flavors that I grew to enjoy. By the time I was done with my single scoop of rhubard, my salted caramel was ready.

The salted caramel was a bit melted on the edges, but it had a nice creamy texture although the caramel flavor wasn’t as strong. I liked it better than the rhubard, but I wouldn’t call it the best ice cream in town.

Smitten Ice Cream offers some solid flavors but is it any better just because it was made on the spot? I’ve had richer, creamier ice cream that was made earlier in the day and still tasted fresh. So the liquid nitrogen is a fun twist, but it doesn’t necessarily add anything special to the ice cream that’s eventually served up.

But the emerging foodie neighborhood of Hayes Valley was calling out for an ice cream shop, so Smitten Ice Cream has nicely filled the void.

Smitten Ice Cream, 432 Octavia St. (at Linden), San Francisco. Open daily from noon to 9 p.m. (till 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday).


Hungry Dog said...

I've heard about this place. Sounds good but gimmicky.

Barton said...

Cool gimmick, I have had dry ice creams that taste fizzy, again cool gimmick but the fizz is interesting

Carolyn Jung said...

I've wondered how this ice cream was and whether it's worth the wait. I mean, five minutes or so is not that long, I suppose. But if given the choice, would you stand it line for this over Bi-Rite or Humphry Slocombe?

Single Guy Ben said...

Yes, gimmicky is the right word for it. But it's like they don't take advantage of the gimmick. Why make on-demand ice cream if you can't create your own flavor? If you have pre-determined flavors, then doesn't make sense to wait for it to be freshly made when the end result is just as good as ice cream made earlier in the morning at other places. iCream in Chicago smartly plays up the gimmick of liquid nitrogen by letting you create your own flavor. Sometimes that can be a miss, but at least you only have yourself to blame. And yeah, if I had to choose, I would go to Bi Rite or Humpfry Slocombe just because they have more flavor choices and the quality is just as good, if not better.

foodhoe said...

Interesting, I sampled their ice cream at the Eat Real festival last year, the line was long and the servings were miniscule, but I liked the creamy rich texture and the mad-scientist aspect of their machinery...