August 4, 2010

Dogs, humans vie for licks at the Café Cluny ice cream cart


It’s been a hot summer so far. Really hot. Horrible, humid hot. So the mobile ice cream cart sitting in front of Café Cluny at the corner of West Fourth and West 12th Streets has looked even more enticing than in past summers.

We wait for it every spring, wondering when the cart will appear and officially kick off ice cream season. Addicts have their favorite flavors – a new one this year, banana vanilla wafer, made a big splash, especially after the persuasive Idyl Bray (pictured, at right), who studies dance at Alvin Ailey when she’s not scooping or hostessing inside the café, began touting its deliciousness. Cookies ‘n’ cream is the standard by which many measure newer Cluny flavors, but spearmint chocolate chip, peanut butter and strawberry seem to have large followings as well.

This cart is a charming, bright spot in the neighborhood, but I have to agree with Julia Moskin, who wrote in today’s New York Times (You Scream, I Scream….at the Price) that this whole artisanal ice cream boomlet can feel like silk-gloved hold-up. Some patrons, it must be said, drew the line and stopped coming when Cluny hiked its prices this year, from $2 to $4 per single scoop.

Those who can afford it, or who can’t but have no will power, have Jacqueline Zion, pastry chef of The Oden in Tribeca to thank/blame. She is the mixologist behind these flavors, which are also served from a cart in front of The Odeon. The pedigree of Zion’s cold comfort food is so long that it would surely win best in show in the Westminster of ice cream battles (perhaps that has happened already on the Food Network). The milk comes from Ronnybrook Farm Dairy in the Hudson Valley, the eggs from Fishkill Farms, and the fruits and herbs hail from Satur Farm on Long Island. Naturally, the cookies and wafer mix-ins are all made at the restaurant.

Delia Acosta (above left), a deceptively docile martial artist, has been scooping in front of Café Cluny for three summers now, as long as the cart has been in existence. She’s watched kids grow up during that time, and gotten to know every neighborhood dog. Delia and Idyl, in fact, rave about their dog customers more than their human counterparts.

There’s Larry, who after a fateful sampling of one spoonful of peanut butter ice cream, now lies down in front of the cart every time he and his owner pass by, refusing to budge until he’s been given his taste. “You would think I gave him doggie crack the way he acts,” says Idyl. There’s Petey, the French bulldog who will eat anything and thanks his servers with a bark, and Ella, the goldendoodle with the beautiful greenish-gold eyes that plead for dessert.

Idyl has become friends with half the neighborhood, many of whom know that she is going to Poland to meet her boyfriend’s family. “Some people will sit here for hours and talk to you,” she says, motioning to the inviting bench that sits next to the cart. Delia says Gay Pride Day is always particularly memorable for the bare-chested, Speedo clad men who parade by, and there is even the occasional celebrity. Food writer Mimi Sheraton, a longtime 12th Street resident, has sampled a flavor or two, and Delia was once stiffed by Kirsten Dunst, who promised to come back with money but never did. She obviously doesn’t live in the neighborhood, for who would dare wear out their welcome when the ice cream is so cold, and so good?

Cafe Cluny ice cream cart
284 W. 12th Street, at W. Fourth Street
One scoop, $5, two scoops, $6
Root beer and Abita float, $8
Open daily, 3 to 10 p.m.