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A tale of two creameries (Ici, Bi-Rite)

In a head-to-head comparison of these two, Bi-Rite wins. Both take pains to create a certain atmosphere, with descriptions of philosophy and provenance of ingredients. Ici is perhaps a bit more Martha Stewart Provencal, but there are two other significant differences. One is in the attitude of the staff. At Ici, they seemed miffed at having to come out from behind the high counter to deal with the lineup (besides us, mostly mommies and nannies with very small children) and were focussing on "processing" us. At Bi-Rite, they let us take our time, even when the shop was crowded, and kept offering unsolicited tastes and chatting about whatever took their fancy.

But the acid test is the ice cream itself, and in this respect Bi-Rite comes out ahead again. Their salted caramel and roasted banana flavours are great, but so were most of the other ones we tried -- the exception being soy chocolate, which my older daughter ordered for some inexplicable reason. (I know, it's not ice cream, but I've had Tofutti, and this is much worse.) Bi-Rite's flavours have a suitable intensity and balance, not feeling overly rich. Ici's flavours are more muted, and even the most successful of them -- on the day we visited, lemon-pistachio and honey-basil -- seem like they're riding on top of the same substrate, relying on luxurious mouthfeel to do the work.

This is probably good, because Bi-Rite is harder to get to for us, but a better alternative to the caloric mace-to-the-head of Tartine, once we're there. I just hope that success doesn't make them cocky. --PR

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  1. they're both good.
    I go to the one I'm closest to at the time.
    Bi-rite does have a Ritual Coffee flavor though.

    1. I thought the first line was going to be .... It was the best of creameries, it was the worst of creameries ... and imagine ... ICI has improved 1000 percent. over opening

      1. Interesting. I had a great customer service experience at Ici recently. The staff was quiet but smiley and helpful to everyone. There was an elderly couple in front of me and a staff person read them the name of each flavor, explained it, offered samples, helped them in every way professionally and kindly. I left impressed with the service (and my burnt caramel and cacao nib ice cream were delicious).

        2 Replies
        1. re: milklady

          We may have suffered from being part of the daycare rush. I should mention that the textures at Ici were all spot-on, whereas there was the occasional icy bit in some of the Bi-Rite ice cream (even leaving out the soy chocolate, which had the texture of a fruit ice, almost). --PR

          1. re: Prabhakar Ragde

            Ici had a LOT of service problems when they opened, and while they've improved, I agree that it still can be a little shaky.

            I wish Bi-Rite was more convenient for me, because oh man, that salted caramel was incredible.

        2. Interesting observations...

          I've always had excellent service at Ici, and equally good service at Bi-Rite. However, I love the texture of Ici's ice cream much better than Bi-Rite. I've had delicious flavors at both, but its really the texture that wins me over at Ici every time. Maybe because I'm a big fan of gelato, and while I know these are ice cream, the texture of Ici's reminds me of the silky smooth texture of gelato. Bi-Rite's texture is more traditional in terms of American ice cream with plenty of air whipped into it. It is luxurious nonetheless, as all super premium ice cream should be.

          1. just adding some links..

            Ici Ice Cream
            2948 College Ave, Berkeley, CA 94705

            Bi-Rite Creamery
            3692 18th St, San Francisco, CA 94110

            1 Reply
            1. re: susancinsf

              Thanks, Susan. I keep forgetting this is possible. --PR

            2. We live in the neighborhood and we were just there today, joining the 20+ person line that is ever-present on weekend afternoons and waiting about 20 minutes to be served. It is astonishing how poorly laid out the place is. They could accommodate twice the staff and the entire line inside the joint if they had the counter along a side wall--and I bet they'd still be able to fit in an adequate kitchen. What could they have been thinking?

              That said, the strawberry was as good as any I've ever had, including homemade, the peanut butter was beautifully intense, and the rosemary-pepita toffee had the whole family jumping up and down.

              2 Replies
              1. re: heidipie

                Which place are you talking about?

                1. re: gemster

                  I've never, ever seem "rosemary-pepita toffee" at Bi-Rite, so I assume it's Ici.

                  The malted vanilla with peanut brittle at Bi-Rite is absolutely magnificent right now. For me, it ranks alongside their salted caramel in the pantheon of the great frozen treats.

              2. I'd have to include Mitchell's in the ice cream mix...great stuff, nice vibe, good staff


                688 San Jose Ave
                San Francisco, CA 94110
                (415) 648-2300

                3 Replies
                1. re: Munching Mark

                  Despite the unusual flavors, the one time I went to Mitchell's I thought the ice cream tasted like supermarket ice cream - and I don't mean Haagen Daz. Also, IIRC, the counterhelp stands behind a cage and serve through windows. Are they set up to deter armed robberies or something? Not what I call a nice vibe.

                  1. re: lmarie

                    Seconded. Mitchell's ice cream is nowhere as good as Bi-rite. It does have some history, though, I suppose, as a part of the city.

                    1. re: xanadude

                      Mitchell's really is an institution. You can't imagine what it was like to be a kid in SF, back in those frosty days before global warming was evident, when it was 56 degrees every damn day. On one of 10 days in the whole year warm enough to warrant it, we'd all pack into my grandfather's truck and head over to Mitchell's. This is when 31 flavors was gourmet--there were no Haagen Daazs stores, no Ben N Jerry's. I could identify the taste of Mitchell's Mango ice cream before I could identify what a Mango looked like at the super market. 20 years later, Ici and Bi-Rite are clearly leap years ahead in terms flavors and style, but neither will ever attain the mythic heights of Mitchell's.

                2. mitchell's is full of air and does taste like supermarket ice cream...

                  I do have to stick up for Ici as being much more inventive than BiRite. BiRite is good, really good, as good as my favorite places in Boston, but not necessarily doing anything new with ice cream. At Ici I've always had great and friendly service, and I know there will always be something unusual.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: linz

                    Also, unlike Bi-Rite's cones, Ici's house-baked ones are quite special. The molten chocolate in the tip is such a lovely detail.