Thursday, May 28, 2015

My Favorite Ice Cream Ever

The menu where dreams come true.
My first visit to Toscanini’s in Cambridge, MA came during the summer of 2009, an experience I posted about when this blog was not yet two years old. Though mostly a wood-and-brick hipster chic spot, they have two snazzy-looking couches. I sat in one and observed the MIT students doing their homework with spoons in hand. I recall marveling at how I was in the presence of some of the most brilliant minds of our time. Not the students, no; the makers of the best ice cream in the world.

In the years since then, I’ve visited the Boston area a handful of times, even relocated there for a month, and each time the item at the top of my to-do list, right above dinner at Al Dente, has been Toscanini’s. I couldn’t name all of the flavors I’ve tried over the years, but I could tell you that there is rarely a flavor I sample that I do not purchase as a full scoop because each taste, big and small, only further proves that they are masters at their craft.

B3, Blackberry Lime
and Khulfee
Ranging from classic (Cocoa Pudding, one of several chocolate options) to unique twists (Burnt Caramel) to unorthodox (Khulfee, the delicious cardamom-heavy Indian dessert), Toscanini’s beats out all other ice cream shops in nearly every flavor category. Their Chocolate No. 3 is among the richest, darkest chocolate ice creams I’ve ever had, more so than many gelati. It is so popular that it has its own shirt dedicated to it and, presumably, sells out quickly given the fact I’ve only managed to catch it on their menu once. Their Blackberry Lime without question is the best fruit ice cream I’ve ever consumed, besting even sorbets. The lime elevates the flavor to tart peaks over the tangy blackberry base, bringing every region of taste bud to ecstasy. Their Brown Butter ice cream is my favorite flavor of all time, a scoop whose mouthfeel and fullness of flavor are the model of decadence. (For those seeking Brown Butter, you are more likely to see B3 on the menu—brown butter, brown sugar and brownie ice cream—another superlative-earning flavor, the best brownie mix-in I’ve tasted.)

This month, I had the privilege of going to Toscanini’s twice. The first time I ordered their largest size, 2 Scoops, feeling simultaneously fully sated—they know how much is enough—and wishing a larger size had been available to allow for more flavor combinations. The second time I went full glutton, ordering 2 Scoops and a 1 Scoop, feeling triumphant afterwards for seizing the moment to maximum enjoyment.

It is a rare occurrence to revisit an old favorite and find that it actually exceeds your already high expectations, leaving you completely fulfilled. That consistency of product, in addition to their impressive use of imagination and dedication to finding multiple notes to hit with each flavor, are what make Toscanini’s my favorite ice cream ever.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Can Ice Cream Fix the Pothole Problem?

I've already discussed the spring thaw in Chicago. One of the more tangible effects is how the roads and sidewalks get damaged from the winter freeze.  And one artist has found a way to keep the spring thaw from turning into the summer time blues in Chicago and Finland. You see, there ain't no cure for the summer time blues, unless of course ice cream is involved. Check out this article with pictures of Jim Bachor's answer to the pothole problem: ice cream mosaics.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Houston's Best Ice Cream

Top: Beef rib at Killen's Barbecue, flags, George H. W. Bush statue in airport
Bottom: Houston Astros game, fajita relleno at Escalante's, NASA
When many people think of Texas food, they think of barbecue and Tex-Mex. On a recent visit to Houston, I learned Texans also have a unique sweet tooth. With doughnuts, the Houston pallet is in touch with its childhood: they really, really like using
cereal as a topping. (For a solid traditional doughnut, try Christy's Donut Kolaches. Their glazed yeast donut, old fashioned and chocolate devil's food were all great. Or try the Shipley's on Ella.) With ice cream, Houston has their noses pointed straight up, offering some intriguing but truly strange flavors, like fennel-citrus, that make my adventurous side seem pretty tame. They also had two vanilla options: vanilla and Mexican vanilla, which uses a different bean. All in all, Houston was an unusual tour de food, but not without some noteworthy ice cream flavors.*

Best Overall & Best Original Flavor:
Cloud 10 Creamery's Lime Ceylon
Located in Rice Village, a shop-heavy section of town that is perfect for strolling, Cloud 10 boasts the strangest of Houston's ice cream flavors, the best of which was Lime Ceylon. This flavor mixed the sour notes of lime with the bitter notes of tea, resulting in a soft-toned flavor that doesn't bite the consumer with its sharper notes so much as nibbles and nuzzles their taste buds.

Best Flavor with an Unusual Mix-in:
Hank's Moo Moo-licious
Vanilla ice cream with hot fudge and chocolate-covered Rice Krispies. I've been unimpressed when other places have attempted flavors with puffed (often soggy) rice, but Hank's made me a believer! Smooth ice cream with a sharp crunch. Though it has a cow-themed name, I made a pig of myself eating this flavor. Word has it that Beyoncé is a fan of their product, too.

Fat Cat Creamery.
Best Twist on a Classic:  
Fat Cat Creamery's Buttermilk Strawberry
This is a seriously rich strawberry ice cream. Chock-full of butterfat and with a punch of strawberry, this flavor was my favorite of Fat Cat's. (To be fair, their selection had a lot of boozy flavors, which do not appeal to me. According to the website, even this flavor has gin in it.) Seriously, though, Fat Cat's Buttermilk Strawberry goes to 11.

Best Chocolate Flavor 
Cloud 10 Creamery's Nutella with Marshmallows
Though my friend Jon and I agreed that we didn't taste even a hint of Nutella, he seconded my suggestion that both the texture of the marshmallows and the cocoa powder flavor of the ice cream made the flavor into scrumptious frozen hot chocolate. In a world of many lackluster chocolate ice creams, this unique effect was certainly memorable and worth trying.

Best Logo: Hank's
Just look at it: a waffle cone in the shape of Texas, a playful yet classic cursive script and an ice cream cone for an apostrophe. On their shirts (which come in white, black and purple), the script is purple, producing a New Orleans purple-and-gold look. This logo is a thing of beauty. If there had been a purple shirt in medium, I would wear the heck out that thing.

Best Flavor Names: Eatsie Boys
It should come as no surprise that a food spot that takes inspiration from the Beastie Boys incorporates clever wordplay into their flavor names, many of which incorporate Beastie references. Take a look. Sadly, they were closed. Possibly permanently, based on the hour and an exterior sign that appeared to have been taken down. But maybe they're still open? If I had more time in Houston, I'd stop by again because these flavors sound worth trying.

*Not all of the places I tried ranked or are listed.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Carmen's Italian Ice


Comparing Rockville's Carmen's Italian Ice to the New Jersey-based chain Rita's is no stretch. They both serve:

  • Jersey-style Italian ice, so finely cut that there's no crunch or even chewing required. The cold just slides down your throat. You may need to chew certain flavors, though, because some of them contain bits and chunks of actual fruit!
  • frozen custard from a soft-serve machine. It is denser, richer and creamier than soft-serve ice cream.
  • a concoction called a gelati (not to be confused with gelati, the plural of the Italian word gelato) which sandwiches Italian ice between a bottom and top layer of frozen custard. The combination of frozen custard and Italian ice doesn't intuitively make sense on paper, but in practice is a delicacy.

But Carmen's sets itself apart in a few important ways:

  • The long list of ice flavors they have available. Their website lists sixty-three varieties and, as the picture at the top shows, they had twenty-six when I visited. Though Rita's lists more on their website, your average franchise only has maybe eight to sixteen flavors available. 
  • A longer list of frozen custard flavors they rotate between--eleven--as compared to Rita's six.
  • A wider and more interesting range of flavor types than Rita's, from horchata (sadly, not featured the day I went), to sour snozzberry, to strawberry malt, to coconut (with real coconut in it), to spicy mango and more.
After some introspective sampling and conversation with the friendly cashier, I settled on two unique flavors: the tangy and sweet Strawberry-Lemon and Birch Beer, the similar-to-root-beer-but-different beverage that I've encountered in Pennsylvania and Maryland. (Wikipedia tells me it "is most commonly found in the Northeastern United States, and Newfoundland in Canada.") The gelati was mostly frozen custard, but the ice was the stand-out ingredient. When I went back for more, I skipped the custard and got the ice all buy itself. Refreshing and recommended!

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Another fine option for frozen dessert in Rockville is York Castle Caribbean Ice Cream.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Flavor Battle: DC Doughnuts and Fried Chicken

The spread at Astro Doughnuts.
I was already aware of the chicken and doughnut trend that had hit Washington, D.C. Indeed, when I was in the city for the 2015 NHL Winter Classic, I was able to sample the delights of one of the two market leaders, Astro Doughnuts. Wowed, I vowed to taste the competition, GBD, when next I made my way to the nation's capital. How pleased I was that the opportunity came so soon. The battle was on!

GBD (Golden Brown Delicious)
I arrived in D.C. on my most recent trip via a Megabus into Union Station. Though the temptation was high to go to Dangerously Delicious Pie's Union Station location, I did not pass go and took the Metro straight to Dupont Circle to try GBD (Golden Brown Delicious). While I arrived knowing what chicken doughnut sandwich I would order, The Luther, their doughnuts were another story because of their rotating selection. Looking over their options, I was surprised at how childish the options that day seemed--Funfetti? After less deliberation than I usually need, I settled on a Tres Leches cake doughnut and a Nutella Glazed yeast doughnut.

GBD in Dupont Circle.
I sat at GBD's bar and sampled my doughnuts while I waited for my main course. The Tres Leches had some nice coconut flavor (for some reason), but was a bit limp. It was more impressive than the Nutella Glazed, though, which despite boasting hazelnuts on top had zero Nutella flavor. I was surprised when my sandwich arrived with a huge side of fries. How many fried things could I, should I eat in one meal? The sandwich was fried chicken with two bacon strips served on a brioche doughnut bun. The bun itself was topped with a maple sauce and sprinkled with pecans. It was tasty, but not remarkably so.

Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken
Located near the Metro Center stop, conveniently near two of my brother and I's tourist destinations (Ford's Theatre and the International Spy Museum), the storefront location for Astro Doughnuts is much more modest than GBD's Dupont bar; it is a grab-n-go counter with a handful of sidewalk cafe tables. Their space is so small, the food is delivered up to the store counter on a dumbwaiter from a lower level.

Astro Doughnuts at the Winter Classic.
Having already tried their wonderful chicken doughnut sandwich (sriracha-mayo with lettuce and tomato) at the Winter Classic, I set my sights on trying their doughnut selection, which was far more extensive than the food truck menu from months previous. I settled on two. First, a Carrot Cake doughnut: a yeast doughnut with raisins mixed and a sweet (not especially cream cheesy) glaze. It was like a lightly fried cinnamon roll, which despite not tasting like carrot cake, left no room for complaints. Not too heavy, not too sweet.

Second, I had Boston Creme. I didn't have the highest of hopes. Long ago, Boston Creme used to be my go-to doughnut. And as time went on I continued to love the delicious custard, but years of eating cloyingly sweet chocolate glaze frosting took its toll and Boston Creme doughnuts were forsaken for the powdered sugar (or standard glaze) of Bavarian Creme. But when I saw Astros' square doughnut with a hole in it, I gave into its hipster charm and bought it anyway. The first thing I noticed was that the chocolate on top was a lighter color. Then when I took a bite, I realized it was because the topping was the same chocolate used on Boston Creme Pie, not the aforementioned cloyingly sweet abomination. Another plus was how light the doughnut was, like a proper Boston Creme pie's cake layers should be. This is the best Boston Creme doughnut I've ever had, restoring my faith in that particular species of doughnut.

GBD's The Luther.
Just look at that maple glaze.
Without a doubt, Astro Doughnuts & Fired Chicken is the better choice than GBD. In all categories--doughnut selection, doughnut quality--Astro has a better doughnut. As for chicken, Astro also wins for quality and for including some lettuce and tomato to add a little something fresh to the fiesta of fried food. The one thing GBD wins at is the maple sauce they drizzled over their doughnut chicken sandwich; Astro, follow their lead on this one.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Ice Cream Jubilee

Just past the outfield and over the stadium walls of Nationals Park in D.C. lies the up-and-coming Anacostia Riverwalk Trail that borders an area growing with condos and bougie food spots. Tucked among them is the inventive Ice Cream Jubilee. Over two trips and numerous sample spoons, I tried ten of the sixteen flavors on their menu board, weighing their vitality so that you, dear reader, can come prepared to order the best three flavors their large size bowl will allow. (Their flavors do rotate, but please do not fault me for being unable to review ice cream from the future. I'm working on it.)

Silence the OCD mathmetician
that wants this to be 4 x 4.
The number one flavor to try is Coconut Lychee Lime. Lychee is the dominant taste, while the lime is a hint of sour and the coconut is only experienced as the textural bits of coconut within. Though not advertised, the cool and refreshing flavor is appropriately a sorbet. (Their menu does not distinguish the ice cream from the sorbet.)

The second flavor for your bowl should be Cookies & Cookie Dough. Though the description of Oreos and Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough pieces may seem a bit simple for their menu, your tastebuds will disagree. With no shortage of both mix-ins, this flavor is like getting impatient with dunking your cookies and choosing instead to just pour your milk straight into the cookie jar and eat it with a spoon.

Clockwise from L: Coconut Lychee
Lime, Blueberry Pie, Caramel Popcorn
The previous two are far and away the best of the bunch. As for the third spot, I have no complaints about the Caramel Popcorn and Peanut Molasses, but it belongs to Honey Lavender Lemon. There is only a light floral taste, not too much, while the honey and lemon shine through most in this subtle and unique flavor. While not my go-to ingredients, this ice cream was memorable and, at the very least, worth sampling so you can taste it for yourself.

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While Ice Cream Jubilee serves up tres chic scoops in D.C., don't miss Georgetown's classic ice cream shop, Thomas Sweet.