CHATTING WITH TYLER MALEK, Salt & Straw's head ice cream maker, one senses what it would've been like to speak with a young Thomas Keller, Wylie Dufresne, or Marco Pierre White. Greatness awaits him on his chosen path; in his enthusiasm, imagination, and utter lack of pretense are the raw materials of a young master. The unrestrained wealth of flavors in his repertoire, and the artistic intuition with which he employs them, is inspired. Vinegars, oils, marrow, salumi, smoked fruit, and more would be hopeless gimmickry in the wrong hands, but here, their inclusion in ice cream is handled with a fundamental sense of liaison. And those are the hard ones to get right—his work with no-brainer flavorings is already legendary.
The shop he and cousin Kim Malek began a year ago has a timeless air to it. Far from the contrived, olde-timey Victorianisms of the archetypal ice cream parlor, the found Americana and salvaged fixtures are right at home in a bohemia whose affection for nostalgia is a cornerstone of its identity. If they didn't have ice cream, I'd probably try to buy the furniture.
At the center of it all is a roster of 15 flavors: eight fairly fixed favorites and seven seasonal creations. Tyler Malek's standards begin with a 17 percent butterfat cream—high for the industry, and for good reason: He posits that our primal, involuntary response to fat can only be positive, our taste buds thanking us for the rich sustenance. His ice creams are truly creamy, thick, and velvety. Next to a scoop of commercial ice cream, they are cashmere contrasted with wool.
The overwhelming public favorite of the assortment is a sea salt ice cream with caramel ribbon. The texture of the caramel, which is personally made by Malek to maintain a viscid pull when frozen, is thick and luxurious. The custard base is clearly salty, but the salinity is expertly teased right to the brink, and intensifies the sweet caramel before washing it away in cold, refreshing cream. The salted caramel cupcake is a more complex version of this, featuring ideally dense little morsels of cake—whose presence in ice cream is difficult to manage without sog or collapse, but here results in a self-contained ice cream which eats seamlessly.
Much has also been made of their Arbequina olive oil ice cream, thanks to a certain national periodical whose name starts with O. The glossy base of dairy is a canvas across which the oil spreads and can be truly tasted for itself—slightly spicy yet understated, a kindred lipid bound perfectly within the cream. Pair it with the honey balsamic strawberry with cracked pepper, a combination that sounds like the ingredients of a vinaigrette, but with the rich sweetness of the balsamic, is tipped squarely into confectionery.
That's a happy realization about the menu: The ambitious flavors can be paired to greater effect, creating custom combos. The black currant sorbet is tart and refreshing with the honey lemon with ricotta walnut cookie ice cream, balancing lightness and density. A sophisticated matcha tea ice cream with subtle orange is a natural match for their chocolate with gooey brownies, and their notorious pear with blue cheese, with a topping of hot caramel, is simply brilliant with the freshly toasted spice of their cinnamon snickerdoodle.
Along with their scoops and cones, Salt & Straw offers a focused assortment of unique floats, shakes, and sundaes. A sweet and sour shake of Pok Pok pomegranate drinking vinegar is smooth and sippable; a sundae of warm brownie with banana ice cream, hot fudge, whipped cream, and crushed hazelnuts is the menu's flagship concoction. While I personally would retool the Vacherine Glace (vanilla ice cream, black currant sorbet, espresso, hazelnut meringue) to be less soupy and more easily eaten, it is, as with all other menu items, an impeccable balance of flavors.
Nearly every ingredient is exhaustively sourced from unique, locally produced goods—from the cream, to the Bee Local Portland honey, to the Salem pears—further enhancing the shop's contribution to the welfare of the community. More good news is afoot in the form of a second location, opening on NW 23rd in the coming weeks. Kim Malek even plans to offer health care for her employees, a rarity in the food service industry.
You will know Salt & Straw by the line out the door, but should you happen by during an off hour, the clouds of vanilla and toasted batter steaming off the hot waffle-cone presses are advertisement enough for the pure, handcrafted pleasures within.
Cones from $3.75; floats, shakes, and sundaes $4.95-6.75. Baked goods, pies, and coffee available. Open 11 am-11 pm daily.
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