Frozen Assets: Is Artisanal Ice Cream Worth the Price?

By Jenny Miller  |  June 27, 2014
Credit: Joseph Li/Chinatown Ice Cream Factory

These days, everything edible has gone artisanal: bearded young butchers hawking “tube steaks” have supplanted Oscar Meyer, Zooey Deschanel lookalikes fizz up huckleberry sodas in places like Minneapolis and anyone hoping for Technicolor ice cream in 31 flavors will instead find pale scoops of locally squeezed dairy in flavors like basil-and-burrata or strawberries-and-sea-salt.

Something’s definitely up with ice cream these days, and it’s partly the prices. If I’d ever been allowed a double-scoop of the brazenly pink peppermint stuff I loved as a kid, my towering cone would have cost well under $5. These days it’s hard to get a single serving in an eco-friendly cup for that, after tax and a tip for the adorable dessert artist who’s finishing his master’s in comparative literature.

The tipping point in ice cream insanity might have come last month, when Nicholas Morgenstern, the chef-owner of New York’s Goat Town, unveiled his eponymous "ice cream parlor" Morgenstern's on the Lower East Side. His blue-painted shop, just down the block from hip taxidermy lair Freemans, offers six counter stools, five flavors of vanilla, four of chocolate, three of caramel and an $18 banana split.

“There’s been no pushback on pricing,” Morgenstern told me recently on the phone. “We're sensitive to value, and we try to keep the portions substantial." His scoops run $4 a pop, a price I found worth every lick when I splurged on a salted-pretzel-caramel cone last week. And that banana split, a top-seller, is designed to feed three or four of the attractive young things who swarm the shop on sunny days.

Morgenstern isn’t the only serious New York chef to take on ice cream: Sam Mason, the former WD~50 pastry-chef-turned-mayonnaise-impresario, opened OddFellows Ice Cream Co. in Williamsburg last year, and brought his top-quality, innovative flavors (chorizo-caramel, anyone?) to the East Village last month.

In San Francisco, the Humphry Slocombe guys have been offering curious mash-ups like strawberry Sichuan peppercorn, churned from coveted Straus cream, since 2008. Operations manager Sean Vahey recalls that the pricing never required a hard sell, even if flavors did. "We were always really clear that we wanted to use the best ingredients possible," he says.

In the Midwest and beyond, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams has been a go-to brand for over a decade, expanding from its original shop in Columbus, Ohio, to outposts in Chicago, Atlanta and elsewhere. (Pints made from the milk of grass-fed cows, in flavors like wildberry-lavender or whiskey and pecan, are available in a Whole Foods near you for over $10.)

As for why ice cream, and why now, that’s simple, Morgenstern says: the "Momofu-ization" of food has finally hit the frozen-dessert world. Diana Hardeman, co-founder of NYC-based ice cream delivery service MilkMade, puts it this way: “When indulging, why settle for something that sucks?”