Ice Pan is one of those places where several pop culture trends converge and form a genuinely pleasing little confectionary bubble. It is the current endpoint in a rising line of chain ice cream one-upmanship, the place where they not only mash in your chosen topping, but they also mash the ice cream into existence right in front of your eyes.
This is the Ice Pan experience: First, you select a base flavor from a long list of possibilities, including many fresh fruits, chocolate, green tea and red bean. Let's have strawberries this time. Then you choose a base liquid: whole milk, low-fat milk, skim milk or soy milk. Then, if you wish, you choose a topping — for instance, Reese's peanut butter cup. Your hard-working fresh ice cream masher throws the strawberries and the milk into a blender, whizzes it up and then dumps the liquid into his large, ultra-cold metal pan, and it instantly starts to freeze.
At this point, you realize that you may be, in fact, having a New Culinary Experience.
After about half a minute, once the stuff has gotten most of the way to frozen, your ice cream masher starts scraping up the frozen puddle. Watch closely because this is the really beautiful part of the experience: The frozen puddle breaks up into long, stiff crystals, and it looks sort of like a miniature version of Superman's Fortress of Solitude rising from the ice.
Then your masher really goes to work. He's got two kinds of terrifying implements — like large paint scrapers, but sharper, like what some evil chef-villain would wield in a "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movie. And he proceeds to chop, flip, pound and mash the heck out of your ice cream until it's utterly smooth.
At some point, he has placed your single whole peanut butter cup on top of the mess and then proceeded to chop and pound it into oblivion with the rest. It's now clear that we need a word for this new job. I suggest cremista.
It looks like brutal, exhausting work. You get the sense that somewhere, in some kung fu movie yet to come, there will be a training montage where the ornery old master forces the arrogant young student to work at an Ice Pan for a year.
Ice Pan either arose from a sincere, Bill Nye-like love of the awesomeness of science or from the world's canniest pitch meeting: "What do people love? They sure love Cold Stone Creamery and that whole mash-in thing. And you know what else people love? Japanese choppy-choppy steakhouses. Let's combine the two!"
But if you look around, you'll start to notice another theme: The huge video displays show close-ups of cremistas pounding ice cream and flash the words "No pain, no gain" over and over again. The tip jars say, "Tipping makes our arms hurt less," which seems to imply that part of the store's pleasure is something akin to medieval entertainment — watching young, healthy workers flail and strain for your benefit — and tips.
What emerges from their labor, though, is quite pleasant — it's fresh, light and quite unlike any other ice cream. It has neither the light body of frozen yogurt, nor the airy fluffiness of churned ice cream. It feels like one of those Mexican frozen pops, the ones with some dairy in them, that's been pounded into submission.
The West Hollywood Ice Pan may be the only place you can experience the cutting edge of culinary technology next to a Target and a BevMo. (Other Ice Pan locations are in Tokyo and Las Vegas.) And here is a prediction: The next step in the high-concept ice cream store arms race will involve teenagers frantically milking dairy cows from an in-store herd.
LOCATION: 7100 Santa Monica Blvd., No. 135, West Hollywood; (323) 883-0267; http://www.icepanusa.com.
PRICE: Ice cream, $4 to $6 (50 cents per topping).
DETAILS: Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Credit cards accepted. Lot parking.
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