Food has become more than fuel the past few years thanks to the influence of luminaries such as Ferran Adria, Bompas and Parr and Heston Blumenthal who create fabulous flights of fantasy with their ingredients. But while those creations make great dining (and of course television and books) they aren’t usually easily available to the average person in the street. Therefore my eyes lit up when I heard that Europe’s first nitrogen ice cream bar has opened in Camden in the shape of ChinChin Laboratorists…
This is the chance to witness some gastronomic theatre while eating some great ice cream without re-mortgaging yourself for the pleasure. It sounded worth braving the teenage goths of Camden for and it didn’t take much persuasion to get a group of us together to try it out this Friday afternoon.
Opened last Sunday by husband and wife Ahrash Akbari-Kalhur and Nyisha Weber this dinky little lab designed by Okay Studios is tucked away between the joss sticks and hemp items of Camden Lock and despite being small, is easy to spot thanks to the wooden swings hanging outside. This sums up ChinChin Labs perfectly: a rather adult idea that makes you feel like a kid again!
You choose your flavour from a succinct list of vanilla, chocolate or lemon curd and watch Ahrash pour the prepared custard into a jug and blast it with liquid nitrogen at -190˚C before freshly churning it in a swanky Kitchen Aid mixer for a minute. It is then scooped in a tub and Nyisha tops it with a variety of sauces and a choice of crunchy toppings, making this much more grown up than a Mr Whippy but with the parts that make that childhood favourite so great!
Three of our group went for the vanilla and one each for the Valrhona chocolate and the lemon curd cheesecake, crowding round like wide eyed children to watch our ice cream being made. Ahrash talked us through the process, scared us silly playing with the liquid nitrogen and made us feel rather special as he whipped up our individual portions of gourmet ice cream.
I was ridiculously excited when Nyisha scooped my vanilla into a pot and offered me a choice of blueberry, raspberry or caramel sauce for the top. The fruit based sauces looked more like fruit compote than a sauce and I picked raspberry, feeling that the tartness of this summer fruit would be great with smooth sweet vanilla. It was much harder to choose my crunchy topping from the massive range offered. Popping candy, macadamia nuts and violet marshmallows all sounded good, but a childhood love of Poor Bear’s Delight ice cream from Maud’s in Northern Ireland, meant I had to have honeycomb on mine!
I couldn’t wait to get stuck in, so I didn’t wait for the others before sampling the soft light creamy ice cream. Deliciously vanilla-y but without the sickliness that can come with some gourmet vanilla ice-creams, it slipped down beautifully. The way the ice cream is flash frozen means it doesn’t need additives or emulsifiers and is lower in fat and lighter in consistency than most ice creams. The tart raspberry was gorgeous with it, but the stand out for me was the honeycomb. It tasted utterly of real fresh honey rather the generic sticky sugar that most Crunchie-esque honeycomb resembles. It was like little nuggets of golden joy…
Around me, the others were getting stuck into their tubs too. The shop is quite small and there isn’t a huge amount of seating, but Ahrash and Nyisha were happy to get us an extra seat or two and brought extra napkins when my very generously scooped portion leaked a bit. We almost didn’t notice how helpful they were as we were so taken with the ice cream.
L had also chosen vanilla, but with a homemade violet infused marshmallow and we got very little chat from her as she savoured the rather amazing marshmallow. J had chosen a posh wafer ice cream cornet to accompany her blueberry topped ice cream and V was most enthusiastic about the lemon curd cheesecake and blueberry combo she had picked, eschewing any crunch.
But you know when you eat out, there’s always someone whose order gives you some serious food envy? That honour befell A with her Valrhona dark chocolate ice cream topped with sea salted caramel sauce and sugar roasted macadamia nuts. My green eyed envy means I have taken a truly terrible photo of this heady concoction, but believe me that it was dark and delicious in real life. The ice cream was rich without being too sweet, the caramel had a proper hint of the sea and the nuts were creamy as only a good quality macadamia can be. The inner child unearthed on this trip wanted to throw a tantrum for not having chosen that…
We all enjoyed our ice cream immensely and felt that £3.95 per portion for the mixture of theatre, quality, toppings, sauce and friendliness was money well spent. Considering a drink in any of the nearby teen infested pubs would set you back the same, I’d say embrace this unique space in Camden and treat yourself to a top class ice cream instead! You might even rediscover a love for chemistry on your trip back to childhood!
*Many thanks to Ahrash and Nyisha for providing me with the opening photo!