When it comes to stunt ice cream flavors, nothing surprises anymore — not after Hidden Valley Ranch ice cream and French’s yellow mustard ice cream and that too-literal Glass Onion ice cream. Savory ice cream has become all about shock: always upping the ante to see what audiences will take.
People seem to buy them, but mostly as a gimmick. The aforementioned examples are all, essentially, promotional materials, meant to be photographed and discussed for limited stints, not necessarily taken seriously as anyone’s new favorite flavor. Some scoop shops have succeeded at savory: Philadelphia’s Little Baby’s slung flavors like pizza and ranch before it closed in 2019; New York City’s Oddfellows was started around the concept; and Detroit’s pandemic-inspired Churned plays with flavors like leek and tom kha. But in general, savory ice cream still carries the shadow of cheesy stunts.
Nationwide, some chefs are taking savory ice cream seriously though. They’re putting it on the menu in clever new desserts, or using it in courses that ask whether ice cream should be limited to dessert alone. Their creations, and their approach to using these flavors, suggest that savory ice cream can escape stunt territory, becoming something that deserves its place on a restaurant menu. The gimmick might get people in the door — but the point is for it to be good.
New York City’s L’Abeille is clearly having fun with the concept. Since the French Japanese restaurant opened last year, its changing menu has included: spot prawns served with tomato ice cream; a crispy sardine served with white asparagus ice cream; a pea velouté served with onion and coffee ice cream; and a beef tartare with celery root and mustard ice cream. With summer on the way, executive chef Mitsunobu Nagae is looking forward to trying out eggplant ice cream. Nagae considers none of these ice creams to be dessert and says they’re the purview of L’Abeille’s savory team, not pastry.
Ice cream offers an interesting experience, Nagae explains. “The cold temperature of the ice cream, melted with the food that it’s served with, wraps the whole taste and makes it smoother and softer in your palate,” he says, through translation from owner Rahul Saito. Rich and creamy, a quenelle of savory ice cream isn’t too far off conceptually from savory sabayon, egg-based sauces that add creaminess to a dish and have also had their moment on menus. Ice cream’s frozen nature builds an additional sense of progression: As it melts, the dish changes. There’s also the element of the unexpected — it’s a thrill, welcome or not, to find onion ice cream on a foie gras creme brulee.
While Nagae is taking ice cream beyond pastry alone, other chefs are rethinking what flavors are allowed to be dessert. The Los Angeles restaurant L&E Oyster Bar serves its madeleines with a cacio e pepe ice cream. Not sweet, the ice cream is “cacio e pepe all the way,” says chef Bryant Gallegos. With toasted black pepper and pecorino, “it finishes hot,” he says. “Not spicy, but the black pepper flavor keeps on going even after you finish.” A reduction of both black and white balsamic vinegar — black for a bit of sweetness, and white for a hint of citrus — rounds out the savory ice cream.
For L&E, the cacio e pepe ice cream was a happy accident: Gallegos was frustrated with how a cacio e pepe focaccia was turning out, so he asked pastry chef Colleen DeLee to use the ingredients in an ice cream instead. The dessert now “sells out before any of my other desserts do,” Gallegos says.
At San Francisco’s Aphotic, executive pastry chef Deirdre Balao Rieutort-Louis is bringing seafood into the dessert world. Her oyster-infused ice cream, served in an oyster shell and topped with a mignonette foam, begins the dessert course. “Instead of seeing the pre-dessert as something that’s more like a palate cleanser, I see it more as a transition between savory and sweet,” Rieutort-Louis says. The ice cream has umami and is “borderline savory,” she says, but its sweetness makes it clear that it’s dessert.
Something fruity follows, then the final mignardise reincorporates oceanic elements like bottarga and caviar. Though Rieutort-Louis was initially hesitant about seafood desserts (“I’m from France. We worship pastries and desserts, and it’s a very sweet thing for us”), she’s enjoying the task. The key is having the seafood flavor noticeable but having the other components read clearly as dessert. Especially for skeptical diners, “that’s what their brain is focusing [on], as opposed to how weird the oyster is,” she says. The brightness of the vermouth in the foam, for example, balances the ice cream.
Aside from oysters, Rieutort-Louis has also played with uni ice cream served with a brown butter crumble, as well as a float of pear sorbet and seaweed cream soda. At the time, the restaurant had brought in sea grapes, the beads of seaweed. Inspired by boba, she added them to the float and served it with a straw so the grapes could pop in the mouth.
Rieutort-Louis owes some of her savory ice cream inspiration to Japan, where she recalls a salt flavor in particular. “I would love to normalize that here and not have it not be gimmicky,” she says. “That’s one of my biggest fears: that someone will look at it and be like, Oh, it’s kind of gimmicky. But it’s really not. The flavors shine through really brilliantly.”
Gimmicks persist for a reason though: Something that sounds as sensational as oyster ice cream is enough to pull people in for a try, even if they only end up trying it once.
But Rieutort-Louis hopes that the initial shock factor will lead to more open minds. “I like defying expectations,” she says. And she points out that although some people have been apprehensive about the oyster ice cream, it’s often mentioned positively in reviews. One person wrote that they even wanted to bring a pint of it home.