Wednesday, October 3, 2012

San Francisco Days, San Francisco Nights Part 2: Ice Cream

I was going to start my San Francisco recaps with coffee and progress through the day and end with sweets and ice cream. I changed my mind. I really need to tell you about the ice cream.

I was going to talk about the post-economic collapse move toward comfort food, the artisinal movement, the organic movement, etc as a set up. Forget it. I should just get to the ice cream.

San Francisco has had an ice cream renaissance. Ice cream joints like Ice Cream Bar and Mr. & Mrs. Miscellaneous are among the new ice cream spots that are using top notch ingredients and coming up with new takes on classic flavors or new flavors for anyone that prefers the classics. I sampled the two leading lights in San Francisco, Bi-Rite Creamery and Humphrey Slocombe. I had heard and read about them both and I approached them with the typically cynical attitude of a New Yorker.

B-Rite is proudly old school. Humphrey Slocombe goes out of its way to be the black sheep of the family. They both have cookbooks. They both have a ton of press. They are very different in style and attitude. They both make great ice cream.

Bi-Rite Creamery

Bi-Rite Creamery stands kitty-corner from Mission Dolores Park, up the street from the landmark Bi-Rite Market (yes, they are related). A line snakes out the door down to the corner. Don't be afraid, (and if you want soft serve, that is at a window next to the the Creamery). Having  read the breathless press and seen the write-ups on the cookbook I was ready for the taste test. Would it live up to the hype?

Bi-Rite uses local, organic milk. Their flavors are seasonal and they work to use the freshest and best ingredients. All their add-ins (brittle, brownies, etc) are made in house as are their toppings and sauces. They are truly striving to make the best ice cream you have ever had.

The line moves quickly and once you finally make it in you realize that it is a small space (which is half the reason for the line, similar to Big Gay Ice Cream). Small space, lots of choices. Read the menu posted outside. You need to prepare yourself. Start with the flavors.

Classics like Vanilla and Mint Chip are on offer as well as unique flavors like Roasted Banana and Honey Lavender. This is a place where you can take your kids, your mom, and your "foodie" cousin and they can all be happy. Once you get a feel for the flavors you move to the big board for the toppings. House made caramel sauce and hot fudge, toasted walnuts and almond toffee. There is a lot of choice. Can't make up your mind? They have suggested combinations and Sundaes and the folks behind the counter are very helpful  (you can taste the flavors). They even give you suggested ice cream pairings written right on the glass of the ice cream case:

Decision time. So what did I get? I was going to get two flavors, but somehow the guy behind the counter talked me into a "design-your-own" Sunday. Evil, evil man.

Three flavors of ice cream; Roasted Banana, Brown Sugar and Salted Caramel. Toppings; Hot Fudge, Almond Toffee. Real whipped cream. Outstanding.

The ice cream just explodes with flavor. The Roasted Banana is the caramelized fruit in ice cream form. The Brown Sugar ice cream has caramel swirled in and strong hints of ginger.  None of the flavors are cloyingly sweet. Even as they melted and mingled, I was never guessing at which flavor I was tasting. The hot fudge added a deep chocolate flavor without taking over the party. The Almond Toffee added crunch and the whipped cream did not come out of a spray can. Perfect.

The hype is deserved. This is a labor of love. The Bi-Rite folks are trying to make the best ice cream possible. They start by searching out the best ingredients and finish by serving up wonderful ice cream with a smile. The is the modern version of an American classic.

Bi-Rite Creamery - 3692 18th Street, San Francisco -

Humphrey Slocombe

Then there is Humphrey Slocombe. Humphrey Slocombe is the other side of the ice cream coin. Jake Godby was a well regarded chef who was very bored and frustrated by the cooking and the clientele in San Francisco. He decided to start an ice cream shop and use it as a way of challenging people (and pissing them off). It is in many ways a big middle finger to the Alice Waters ethos of San Francisco cooking. In a New York Times profile of Godby he comes off as a very talented, anti-social guy who is unmoved by the haters that have taken offense with Humphrey Slocombe. He is serious about what he does and is willing to have people hate him. Of course he also has devotes. What he wants is a reaction, positive or negative, to his food. Silence would be the biggest insult.

There is attitude everywhere at Humphrey Slocombe. There is a mounted two headed calf on the wall. It is also the Humphry Slocombe logo. The flier for the cookbook says "Pre-order now Bitches!" He uses  meat in his ice cream and the flavors have names like Government Cheese and Jesus Juice. He uses a lot of alcohol as well.  People get angry about this. Apparently this is really edgy in San Fran.

I am not one who generally goes for "challenging" ice cream flavors. I am not a "savory" ice cream guy. My friend Tom insisted we go. I trust Tom implicitly when it comes to food (and 80s metal) so despite serious reservations I went. I knew I would hate it.


Humphrey Slocombe is located in the Mission. It is a simple storefront and a small, surprisingly plain store. It feels like a fairly classic, if bare bones, ice cream shop. There was a small line. The Smiths were playing on the stereo.

There were four fake Warhol soup can paintings on the wall.

Three of these are real ice cream flavors at Humphrey Slocombe. One is what he tells people when they ask him what wacky new flavors he has. I will let you figure out which is which.

One thing to note, I went to Humphrey Slocombe right after Bi-Rite (it was that kind of trip), so I had pretty much had my ice cream quota for the day. We ordered two flavors.

The flavor on the left is their most popular, Secret Breakfast.

Yes. Bourbon (Jim Beam) and cornflakes. This is their most popular flavor. Readers of this blog know how much I like bourbon. You may also know how much I dislike alcohol in my desserts. There is no way Secret Breakfast should work. It does. It is great. My experience eating secret breakfast went something along the lines of taste a spoonful, sit dumbfounded wondering how it could possibly taste this good. The sweet cream base is delicious. The cornflakes give it some texture and added tang. But the bourbon is the magic trick. The rich, sweet flavor of the bourbon comes through with absolutely no bite of alcohol. Bite after bite it was like watching the same card trick being performed and being amazed every time. I was in awe, and hooked.

The flavor on the right is Butterbeer.

A flavor in honor of Harry Potter. Sweet cream base with caramelized butter and stout (beer). Again, the rich sweet cream base. The caramelized butter brings an additional creaminess that tempers the sweetness of the base while adding rich caramel notes. The stout (nice British touch for Mr. Potter) adds chocolate and coffee notes and gives the ice cream a remarkable depth of flavor. I was dumbfounded by Secret Breakfast. I was knocked out by Butterbeer. I ate and drank a lot of amazing things in San Francisco. Butterbeer was the best.

If two headed calves and experiments with prosciutto in ice cream are the price to pay for flavors like Secret Breakfast and Butterbeer then we are getting off easy. Pushing the boundaries and challenging the public has always been essential in great art and believe me, this is ice cream as art. If you think I have lost my way or I am over selling Humphrey Slocombe think again. I would fly on a prop plane filled with 13 year old One Direction fans if it meant I could have one scoop of Butterbeer. Maybe this means I have joined the cult of Humphrey Slocombe. I would have joined Voldemort and become a Deatheater if it meant I could have Butterbeer (did you really think I wasn't going to go there? Really?) One taste and you will too. Welcome to the dark side.

Humphrey Slocombe Ice Cream - 2790 A Harrison Street, San Francisco -


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