Trend Spotting: Soft Serve

Considering its inherent associations with smoke-belching Mr. Softee trucks, and corporate franchises such as Carvel and Dairy Queen (not to mention that it’s typically a pre-mixed, highly-processed, low quality product, composed of up to 60% air), soft serve has long been low on the totem pole on the ice cream world — it’s somewhat nostalgic and satisfies a sugar craving, but generally nothing to get roused about.

So it’s certainly no surprise that its hard-packed, milk fat-saturated sibling was first to attain artisanal glory, becoming the Madagascar vanilla and Michel Cluizel chocolate-flavored focus of contentious indie shops around New York.  Yet since there’s nary a subject left unexplored, in the city’s current quest for constant culinary innovation, soft serve has nonetheless been thrust smack into the spotlight.

It started with a few early innovators such as Big Gay Ice Cream (home of the infamous Salty Pimp) and the avant-garde Dominique Ansel, who expanded his repertoire from epicurean cones (burrata, olive oil, cold-brew), to whimsical constructs such as “What-A-Melon,” whose interior ribbons of piped soft sorbet actually help keep its outer watermelon shell crisp.  But within the past year, machine-dispensed swirls have inspired a slew of dedicated businesses, from Milk & Cream (which merges soft serve with another burgeoning trendlet, cereal, to produce signature sundaes like Froot Berry Bliss, Apple Jack Avalanche and Chocolate Cocoa Crunch), to Asian-inspired, Instagrammer favorites like Soft Swerve — whose vibrantly-hued sweets are stained with black sesame, green tea and ube purple yam — and Taiyaki, where the feather-light ice cream gapes from the mouths of fish-shaped pancake cones.

Soft serve is at peak popularity in Brooklyn, where it’s the thrust of Andrew Carmellini’s William Vale-located food truck, Mister Dips (try the “Berry Gibbs,” with boozy strawberries and whipped cream), and a new favorite at both Roberta’s and Lilia’s casual, adjacent café’s (look for coconut-culantro custard at the former, and soft gelato at the latter).  

But the fact that it’s taken over the borough’s top-tier restaurants as well is a whole lot more telling; the James Beard-acknowledged Olmsted funnels its garden-to-table ethos into vanilla-violet and strawberry-rhubarb cones (culled from a machine that lives in its very own shed, next to the eatery’s tub of crawfish), while at no-waste trailblazer, Sunday in Brooklyn, soft serve is refined enough to make the in-house dessert menu; think dairy-free dark chocolate, crowned with sugar crisps and toasted marshmallow, and black raspberry paired with citrus meringue and mint.