|A group of lovely ladies making ice cream on N2 Heaven's series of liquid nitrogen chilled Kitchen Aid's
Seasons don’t make sense in Vietnam. Officially, we are at the height of Spring—a time for blossoms and zephyrs and renewal. In fact, we are caught in the miserable meteorological saddleback between the wet and dry seasons, when the sunlight makes you feel like you’re on fire and each day grows hotter and more humid than the next.
Great storms brew and never break, leaving us all to cook like frogs in a clay pot. Plants wilt. Dust blows through the town. We all get a little glimpse of what hell might be like.
Not so bad, as it turns out.
Because we have ice cream. Good ice cream.
|The owner of N2 Heaven's latest project, a rum raisin made with ruou nep (glutinous rice wine) and peanuts
For a while there, Haagen Dazs (or whatever multinational corporation who owns it at the moment) had a vice grip on the town’s ice cream imagination. The modestly paid denizens of Saigon were dressing up and shelling out for pretentious sundaes and nonsensical creations like ice cream fondue.
The ice cream conglomerate’s park side took on a Fellini-esque vibe. These days, a uniformed wait staff herds you away from the counter (and any shot at a free sample) to a series of fancy tables. Next they hand you a menu featuring dream-like photos of a substance that can be purchased in any gas station or Winn Dixie in America.
Granted, Haagen Dazs has stuck to simple ingredients since it was founded in the Bronx over a hundred years ago. But it’s nothing special.
Like Pizza Hut, Starbucks and Burger King, the good people at this faux Danish operation have duped Saigon into believing that an industrial product designed in a lab somewhere in the United States is somehow special.
In the meantime, more than a few Japanese gourmets have been doing their part for ice cream.
The honorable Mr. Harada of Cuu Long Izakaya has long capped his epic seven-course omaske with a divine pat of homemade ice cream. At 4P Pizzeria, Mr. Masuko serves a tart, crystalline frozen yogurt he spins, like some latter day dairy Rumpelstiltskin, out of buffalo milk and fresh strawberries harvested in Da Lat.
Meanwhile, these men are surrounded by a growing field of middling franchises (Bud’s, Penguin’s, and Baskin Robbins) continue to lay dubious claims to American origins, often pretending that their company has something to do with San Francisco.
The question, of course, is why?
Everyone with a working tongue knows that things just taste better here—particularly fruit, the essence of ice cream.
Nowhere is this understood than Saigon’s newest game-changer: N2 Heaven.
The newcomer likewise claims to being based in San Francisco, though it’s only location is in District 3.
Two months ago, a Vietnamese American named Tony mounted a series of liquid nitrogen hoses to three Kitchen Aid mixers and invited people to conjure ice cream out of a puff of smoke.
It sounds like a cheap gimmick. But it’s not.
The process somehow elevates fresh fruit, sugar and cream into something greater than the sum of its parts—a super-dessert that gives gelato a run for its money. Supposedly, the rapid freezing process creates a creamier dessert by freezing the liquid before larger ice crystals can form.
Indeed, N2’s peanut ice cream goes down like a mouthful of ground peanuts and actual butter. The coconut and pandan leaf kick Haggen Dasz’ lackluster vanilla right in the pants.
Perhaps best of all, it’s cheaper than Haagen Dasz.
The staff is giggly and fun. They’ll happily let you stand at the display counter, minutes before their closing time, while you pile up enough disposable sample spoons to build a mouse fort.
For VND15,000, they’ll press you a hot, chewy waffle cone studded with bits of coconut.
Despite all its claims to Americanness, N2 Heaven draws its strength from Vietnam’s Edenic abundance of tropical fruit and piquant local ingredients. Tamarind. Black Sesame. Longan.
On my last visit, Tony ran downstairs with a paste of minced raisins macerated in ruou nep (glutinous rice wine). I mixed it with peanuts and cream, pressed a button, flipped a knob and in less than a minute was scooping the new ice cream onto a plate.
“I don’t know what to call it,” he said.
“What about Ruou and Raisin?”
INSPIRED ICE CREAM
* Cuu Long Izakaya: The flavor and availability of Mr. Harada’s homemade ice cream may change, but it’s probably the best in town.
Address: 63 Pham Viet Chanh Street, Binh Thanh District, HCMC
Telephone: (08) 3 840 9826
* 4P’s Pizzeria: The buffalo milk frozen yogurt isn’t ice cream. It’s better.
Address: 8/15 Le Thanh Ton Street, District 1, HCMC
Telephone: 0120 789 4444
* N2 Heaven Ice Cream: Imagine taking every fruit and natural flavor you love in Vietnam and somehow making it better. Now go and do it.
Address: 30 Ba Huyen Thanh Quan Street, District 3, HCMC
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By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the March 29th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)