Williamsburg recently got a trio of new ice cream parlors, starting with Davey’s and the flagship of Van Leeuwen. But things work a little differently at -321° Ice Cream Shop, which quietly opened on Grand Street a couple of weeks ago. When you walk in, there’s no ice cream to be seen — just three colorful mixers standing in a row. Fortunately, owner Allen Ruan is prepared to whip up a personal-sized batch in no time, and he does it with flair. Using liquid nitrogen, it turns out, is both entertaining to watch and (bonus!) a great way to make perfectly smooth ice cream.
Ruan’s concept for -321° is to offer restaurant-quality desserts in a casual, kid-friendly setting. He isn’t afraid of unusual flavors like green tea KitKat, but he also makes crowdpleasers like peanut butter and rocky road. Each cup of ice cream is made to his exact specifications; there is only one size, and the toppings aren’t mixed into the ice cream but placed carefully on top. If you want your traditional three-scoop cone, this isn’t the ice cream shop for you.
But try it anyway – you might be convinced that Ruan knows what you want better than you do. After all, if there’s one thing the former wealth management professional remembered about his teen years working at an ice cream shop, it’s that “you always get a smile when you serve people ice cream.”
The liquid nitrogen method for ice cream caught his eye when he was researching dessert trends — he found that the method was quickly gaining popularity on the West Coast but hadn’t caught on yet in New York City. The shop’s social media manager, Andy Xiao, explained what sets the ice cream apart: “It’s almost like when you go to a brewery and get a beer that’s freshly brewed.” Getting ice cream in its “optimal condition,” per Xiao, means smaller ice crystals that melt a bit faster, but it also means you never get those big, grainy ice crystals that can form when ice cream is frozen for too long.
For a helping of strawberry, Ruan poured the batter into one of the specially made mixers and added freshly made strawberry syrup to the mix. Soon a cloud of liquid nitrogen began to creep out of the mixer and engulf the entire counter. After a minute, he tilted the bowl to reveal rosy pink ice cream, which he scooped into a cup and topped with fresh strawberry slices and whipped cream. The result was ice cream that was more creamy than your average scoop but also more dense than soft serve.
If you still need to be enticed to give it a try, -321 is offering a free ice cream to anyone who checks in at their location on Yelp.
321° Ice Cream Shop, 288 Grand Street (Williamsburg). Open 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. Closed Mondays.