Lactard, anyone? After dinner Phosphate? These are some of the questions we were met with upon strolling into Cole Valley's new soda fountain and ice cream shop, The Ice Cream Bar on Friday night. Now I'm an ice cream gal through and through, so I've been waiting for the day when Ice Cream Bar would finally open. The time has come and I can assure you that what you'll experience once you step inside will be quite new to you.
When you walk in the doors, things actually look quite familiar: there's an ice cream menu, folks sampling their favorite flavors, and talk of sundaes and housemade cones. Another high-end ice cream shop? Not so fast. The best way to think of Ice Cream Bar is almost like two different shops. There is the ice cream half of the shop which is just that: wonderfully rich homemade ice creams served on their own, blended into thick milkshakes, or layered into classic sundaes. So let's start there, as you probably will begin there when you visit for the first time. The young gentlemen helping us with our samplings mentioned that the pistachio, butterscotch, and honey buttermilk ice creams have been the most popular so far.
But we decided to go all out with the House Banana Split: a classic sundae made with three different kinds of ice cream and topped with a caramelized banana, housemade sour cherry sauce, almonds, and whipped cream. They spend time with this sundae, caramelizing the banana in front of you with a sprinkling of sugar and a blow torch. "You can kind of crack the top just like creme brulee," we were told. And the sour cherry sauce is reason enough to order the banana split. It's tart, colorful, and refreshing -- a nice change from the creepy maraschino cherries that adorn many a dish of ice cream.
After our sundae, we wandered towards the back of the shop to the ice cream fountain. Here is where the magic really happens thanks to owner Juliet Pries' concept and Russell Davis' Soda Program. Davis, of Rickhouse, calls himself a "Beverage consultant, mixologist, and troubadour," and has created a soda fountain menu consisting of old-fashioned fountain drinks like fruit-based crushes, panaceas (healing tonics), egg creams, and build-your-own sodas using housemade extracts and tinctures. There are 13 syrups (including agave and chicory coffee), 24 house-made extracts (including birch, fennel seed, sassafras), and more than 75 tinctures all told and uncountable combinations for each. Enter the delight.
You'll scan the menu and see something familiar in a milkshakes or malts only to learn that even the milkshakes are a throw-back to the early 1900s when they weren't actually made with ice cream but, instead, a combination of egg, milk, ice and syrups. Nothing is expected or familiar at the soda fountain. You will ask lots of questions, you will sip something like nothing you've ever tasted, you will leave delighted with the experience, satisfied, and feeling like you'd just entered a whole new world.
On the back of the soda fountain menus, Russell Davis explains:
"Soda fountains date back to the 1800s and served to replicate the 'healing' properties of the effervescent natural mineral waters that boil out of the earth. They were more like pharmacies than just places to get soda, and the soda experts were just as much healers as they were beverage crafters. We are reviving the lost art of mixing these specialty drinks, along with their ingredients."
And reviving the lost art they are. Truly. At one point I saw Simpson glancing at a book with handwritten notes. Inquiring as to whether those are the recipes, he mentioned that they're his personal notes for concocting special off-menu drinks for customers who ask. We decided to go the more traditional route and opted for a root beer soda, asking him to make it with whatever extracts he thought would be really delicious. The result? A root beer soda with sassafras, wintergreen and peppermint extracts.
It was strangely refreshing and boasted a marriage of flavors I would have never thought to join. For our second foray into soda-land, we chose the Breakfast Soda, a drink with muddled fresh oranges, powdered sugar, maple syrup, and thyme extract. It was mild, pleasant, and only slightly sweet--a good starter soda for those wanting to try something but unsure how to dive right in.
The employees at Ice Cream Bar will be quick to tell you that everything is housemade, from the cones to the syrups to the marshmallows and candies. Their future plans involve rolling out savory items focusing on classic comfort food. Hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches are rumored to be in the mix. The delight is understandable: kids and adults alike are enjoying cones, sundaes, floats, and egg creams in a sweet, vintage-styled ice cream shop. What's not to like? The befuddlement arises from the fact that soda fountains are such a thing of the past that many of us will have little context for understanding how they were much more of a pharmacy than a dessert spot. You could tell the soda jerk what ailed you and he would fix up something to help relieve your symptoms. To most of us this invites questioning, curiosity, and an entirely new landscape of discovery. Go see for yourself.