Gourmet ice cream is, arguably, the tastiest of the dozen trends that have swept the nation in recent years (honorable mention to food trucks). From Portland's Salt and Straw to New York's Big Gay Ice Cream, New Orleans stalwart Creole Creamery to San Francisco's own Bi-Rite, shops specializing in thick and gooey cream are opening to massive crowds and critical acclaim. Arguably the most innovative of these locations (no, not Humphry Sloccombe and its Foie Gras and Prosciutto scoops) is Smitten, a place that pumps out surprisingly traditional flavors from the inside of a refurbished shipping crate. Its humble address aside (the container is located adjacent to the decrepit alley that gave birth to Blue Bottle Coffee), this tiny creamery wins impressive points in numerous ways, most notably the manner in which it crafts decadent frozen treats.
Unlike other creameries who churn ice cream by the gallon each morning, Smitten revolutionizes the industry by making (not mixing like Coldstone, actually MAKING) each serving to order. To the surprise of many first timers, this approach results in quick and delicious cones that arrive to customers "in 90 seconds". Smitten's not-so-secret secret weapon/ingredient is liquid nitrogen, which can be observed billowing in plumes from the buckets, mixers, and stirring bowls behind the counter. This nitrogen is harnessed by the ice cream mixers themselves, a quartet of unique and aptly named "Brr" machines. Five years - and apparently three patents - went in to the design and construction of these mixers, creations that can't be found outside Smitten's four corrugated metal walls. Though risky, the time and money spent more than paid off; many now consider the establishment to be the best in the competitive Bay Area, if not the world. Much of this praise stems from the smoothness of the ice cream; liquid nitrogen's low temperature (-300 degrees) keeps the majority of ice crystals from forming.
Smitten's brilliance goes well past science. Beretta Creamery Milk, TCHO Chocolate, Swenton Strawberries - each ingredient used here is crafted by local, artisanal, and organic vendors. Though these ingredients are understandably more expensive (Smitten's price tag is insanely high as a result), the expense is worth it; each and every flavor tastes pure and unadulterated. My personal favorite is the Apple Crisp, only offered in November, an option that features rich, cinnamon-coated apples in a slightly sour vanilla cream. Crushed and spiced Graham crackers add a light crunch and doughy note, the perfect compliment for the fruit. Easily the best scoop I've ever sampled, it's often hard for me to walk away without a few pints around Thanksgiving. As delicious as the seasonal flavors such as this are, the standard daily choices (offered year round) are equally delicious. Smooth, silky Salted Caramel is a favorite of most customers, with the TCHO Chocolate coming in a close second.
At $5 a scoop, the price makes Smitten's ice cream a luxury item. Though stunningly smooth, chalk full of local ingredients, and made fresh to order, the dessert here isn't completely worth the cost. Local superstars Bi-Rite and Humphry Sloccombe, two business known for expensive treats of similar quality, charge two dollars less a scoop. Smitten, because of this, is a place I visit occasionally, but not frequent. There are far better deals scattered throughout the city I like to take advantage of, and some of the best ice cream on the West Coast, made by Strauss Family Creamery, can be found at most local markets for half as much as Smitten. Regardless of price or convenience (parking's a hassle, too), Smitten is easily the best ice cream parlor in a city in love with ice cream. Though it may break the bank, do yourself a favor and give this spot a try if you're ever touring San Francisco.