Fine-dining restaurant Komi has reinvented itself as a vegetarian Greek-inspired carryout called Happy Gyro since the pandemic began. The tofu skin gyros and hyper-seasonal pizzas, along with a fun selection of natural wines, have garnered a loyal following. But the sleeper hit? Happy Ice Cream. The frozen treats come in cheffy flavors like olive oil with cocoa crumble or sheep’s milk ricotta with sungold tomato honey. You can get them to-go by the pint or by the scoop from a sidewalk cart parked in front of the restaurant.
Happy Ice Cream is the brainchild of Ben Brunner, who’s been pastry chef at Komi for a decade and is responsible for its desserts. His ice cream has long been incorporated into Komi’s Mediterranean-influenced tasting menus, but it’s only in the past year that he’s pivoted to pints of oatmeal cookie and shaved chocolate ice cream, key lime pie frozen yogurt, and blackberry-geranium sorbet.
“To be honest, focusing on ice cream was a great escape from the pandemic — it afforded me a creative outlet that was pretty cathartic. I think people picked up on that joy. Right away, people really responded to the ice cream and we started selling out of pints,” Brunner says. (Like his famously interview-shy boss, chef Johnny Monis, Brunner would only answer questions via email.)
Bruner has just two small ice cream makers and packs the super small batches by hand. He says that process makes a big difference to the quality, because he’s able to build layers so you get the texture of, say, polenta crumble or cashew brittle in every bite. The Wisconsin native says the rich custard-style ice cream he grew up with inspired a lot of the flavors, while others (like the olive oil with cocoa crumble) are a throwback to Komi. Brunner continues to take a fine-dining approach even to casual cones, using what’s in season at the farmers market and from local farms.
“When strawberries aren’t at their peak, for example, we don’t make that flavor anymore,” Brunner says. Meanwhile, a New Orleans-style coffee ice cream uses two different coffee steeping processes “to access different flavor profiles and accents.” Naturally, you won’t find your standard waffles cones either; Brunner makes his own cones with a little bit of sourdough starter and three different types of sugar for a “pronounced caramel, nutty and honey flavor profile to really complement the ice cream.”
Komi/Happy gyro owner Monis notes that even ice creams that seem deceptively simple are exceptionally precise and labor-intensive. “When people can’t put their finger on why the ice cream is so good, that’s what they’re tasting: the undivided attention of a chef who’s pouring all of his immense talent into ice cream,” he says via email.
The ice cream comes with high-end prices—$15 per pint or $6 for a single scoop ($8 for a double) at the cart. You can find four daily rotating flavors from the cart—weather permitting—Tuesday through Friday from 5:30 to 8:30 PM and Saturdays from 12:30 to 8:30 PM. (Check Instagram to see what’s being scooped each day.) A wider selection of flavors is available if you order a pint from Happy Gyro’s takeout menu. The cart will also be available for weddings and events, and Happy Ice cream has offered delivery “telegrams” for special occasions.
Happy Ice Cream and Happy Gyro will be sticking around for the foreseeable future. Co-owner Anne Marler is vague about the return of Komi or whether the takeout concepts might ever move to a new space.
“We feel like we’re sort of housing a natural wine bottle shop, a pizza parlor and a scoop shop under one roof right now—all of our favorite things,” Marler says via email. “That’s where our hearts are right now, so we don’t really want to put the genie back in the bottle. We are having a blast and not putting any dates on anything or planning too far in advance right now.”
Happy Ice Cream. 1509 17th St., NW.