When Tartine was gestating behind paper covered glass years ago, I walked on 18th street every chance I had to try and peer through sheets not flush or tiny tears. Even if it wasn't on my way, I veered myself, and many other exasperated friends, to the discreet corner to check on its progress. I guessed at the floor plan, oohed and ahhed as the bread ovens were installed, and gasped when the door opened one day to a quizzical construction worker who found me slithering past to take in a wider angled view.
At Citizen Cake we guessed at what they'd offer, excited at the prospect of another bakery in town. Anne Walker was set to be the opening pastry chef and when I ran into her we spoke of the transition we make as pastry chefs when we go from plated-dessert restaurant work to bakeries. It's quite different indeed.
In a restaurant the pastry chef is barely to never seen. Much of the time the savory chef takes credit for the last course, whether through an outright lie (as is the case in many restaurant cookbooks), or one of omission, like when the pastry chef's name doesn't appear on their own creations' menu. Sometimes the pastry chef is merely following the instruction of the executive chef. But when a pastry chef has a style all their own, or creates desserts that become directly associated with the name of the restaurant, i.e. "signature" dishes, and their name is left out of the publicity mix, the error is more complicated than a typo.
It is, therefore, no coincidence, that some of America's best restaurant pastry chefs are venturing out on their own. Raising the roof on structures where their unique take on the sweet world express no end of possible exquisite concoctions.
As a restaurant pastry chef we are expected to know how to do everything. Cakes, laminated doughs, chocolate, ice cream, bread, candies, cookies, tarts, and maybe a few blown sugar elements thrown in for good measure. In France, where our Western pastry traditions are said to originate, (although upon deeper research, it is more likely that the Medici's taught the French), the crafts are more segregated. A chocolatiere might never learn bread baking and those who specialize in sugar sculpture may never step foot in a restaurant kitchen.
As the old saying goes, a croissant made by a patissiere is buttery and flaky; a bread baker's croissant would be doughier.
Mary Canales, who hails from Chez Panisse, has struck out on her own after a ten plus tenure in the pastry department, to bring the East Bay ice cream luxurious and precious, local and Organic, aesthetically poetic and feminine.
And I was lucky enough to taste it on its first day!
Located in the Elmwood District of Berkeley, Ici sits close to the major intersection of Ashby and College Avenue. On the Northwest side, as we New Yorkers would specify. A tall space with walls lined halfway with soft, extra-large tiles and Martha Stewart-style ribbon hung wide frames displaying flourished cursive ice cream names, Ici is a sparse space but with all the right details. An old fashioned case displays whimsical ice cream and sorbets bombes and ice cream cakes, large single scoops on a platter to represent the flavors of the day, and what is bound to become my new addiction: ice cream sandwiches like nothing the Good Humor man delivered in his singing white truck on hot summer days.
Impossibly thin, crispy deep cocoa cookies top and bottom a generous portion of paired ice cream flavors. After each eating a cone, my friend and I shared a chocolate-malt sandwich and it barely lasted until the end of the block.
There are flavors I think speak volumes about what the rest of the others will taste like. Sometimes simple is hard because it's easy to be wowed by something we've never had, harder to impress with that which we have all grown up with. I went with a simple, old- fashioned small cone of strawberry and chocolate. At $3.50 the portion could be a tad more generous, but they have the butterfat content and pure taste to warrant it. Not to mention a delicate handmade cone which held the scoops like an oversized cashmere throw.
Having had the benefit of spending some time working at Chez Panisse with Mary, I understand their ice cream philosophy. You laugh, but ice cream is a many-layered idea. If you have a favorite flavor you methodically taste wherever you go, you understand that not all ice cream is created equal. Like the craft of being a pastry chef, ice cream making falls into a number of categories.
Ici delivers ice cream to the palate looking for quality ingredients over strength of singular powerful jolt. The apricot-peach ice cream was more like a Milton Avery watercolor than a Picasso, the vanilla chocolate-chip whispered custard like creme brulee and downplayed inconspicuous sheer chocolate shavings, the Blue Bottle coffee ice cream mirrored cafe au lait more than an oily inky espresso.
On Tuesday September 5 Ici will open for their regularly scheduled hours after taking Labor Day off to work on grand opening kinks. With all family members, spouses and workers on deck, Ici fed the crowds delicious, much anticipated frozen treats starting at 11 a.m. on Sunday September 3rd.
Whether you relegate ice cream into a summer-only dessert, consider it, as I do, to be a food group, or just love following the crowds to see what all the fuss is about, Ici is sure to please all alike. And maybe even convince you it's finally time to make the move to the East Bay.