This awesome grill-your-own-beef Japanese restaurant in the West Village has very limited tables and long waits for dinner, so you can't just stroll in off the street and sit down for dessert. But you can order takeout, and it's worth doing, as this is easily some of our favorite soft-serve in the city, strongly flavored with Madagascar vanilla, creamy and supple. The real fun, though, is in the different toppings—rice flour dumplings (shiratama), black sesame soy bean flour (kurogoma kinako), and sweet red azuki beans. Pictured here is the salted caramel, with a burnt, salty edge that paired particularly well with the more savory toppings. (A sundae with all the toppings is $10. Piling them on this high probably isn't for everyone, but you've gotta see the appeal.)
The fior de latte soft serve at Michael White's new pizzeria is reason enough to visit—dense and creamy and a perfect vehicle for anything piled on it. Toppings range from classic to much more interesting (pictured here are blueberry-limoncello and rosemary caramel corn). We are now believers in popcorn-as-ice-cream-topping.
Nicoletta: 160 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10003 (map); 212-432-1600
I've had plenty of vegan soft serve that I thought was good for, well, a vegan dessert. Kyotofu in Hell's Kitchen makes soymilk soft serve that's just plain good—it could go head-to-head with anything in the city. Flavors rotate monthly; this month it's a supple, clean Coconut and a nicely spicy Thai Chili Chocolate. The best part, though, might be the unusual toppings; who could say no to matcha mochi?
ChikaLicious Dessert Club
Intensely creamy, deeply vanilla-flavored, and some of my favorite vanilla soft-serve in New York. We like it in any form, but especially as a superb sundae made with chocolate sauce (called hot fudge on the menu), pistachio, little chocolate pearls, and toasted phyllo dough shavings called kataifi—crunchy, nutty, chocolatey, salty and sweet.
They're known for their premium ice cream, sold at their stores and at venues like the Brooklyn Flea, but their Court Street location swirls soft-serve, too. Recent flavors have included Vietnamese Cinnamon and Chocolate; there should really be more cinnamon soft-serve in this world.
Big Gay Ice Cream
Doug Quint and Brian Petroff have done more than anyone else to elevate Mr. Softee ice cream into a canvas for brilliant topping experimentation. At their shop, I have an impossible time deciding between the classic Salty Pimp (dulce de leche, sea salt, vanilla ice cream with a chocolate dip) and the Mermaid (pictured here, with tart key lime curd, crushed graham crackers, and whipped cream)—but the always-interesting a la carte topping list (olive oil! wasabi pea dust!) is tempting, too...
We can't say enough about this goat's milk soft-serve shop, where flavors rotate such that you might encounter a rich salted caramel (with just a faint goaty tang), or you might see a vanilla tinged with orange blossom, or perhaps date and yogurt. Toppings lean toward the Mediterranean, too; we love just about anything crowned with crumbles of sweet, nutty halvah.