Lab Sense whips up nitrogen-powered ice cream

Lab Sense whips up nitrogen-powered ice cream
Have we reached peak ice cream yet? Torontonians will line up for hours for cold concoctions, the more exotic the better. Businesses with new ways of chilling us out are cropping up all over.

Such as Lab Sense, an establishment on Yonge St. south of Wellesley St. that offers creamy delights whipped up in front of you with the help of super-dramatic liquid nitrogen.

“We have a secret recipe that gives it a milky, creamy flavour,” says owner Rita Li, 22, who launched the shop in July as her first business.

Most servings at Lab Sense sell for $6.25, with Tiramisu being the best seller. Also on offer are Matcha and Black Rice, among others.  (Anne-Marie Jackson)  

Li hails from Tianjin, China, and knew from the age of 12 that she wanted to go abroad and study. Canada seemed perfect: close to opportunity-rich U.S., but with a more tolerant society.

Four years ago, Li moved to study economics and statistics at the University of Toronto. In her final years, she juggled numerous part-time jobs, along with her studies: she worked in a bank, in cafes and for an education company.

Her theory: when you are in school, you can’t do work, sleep and have friends. “I chose work and friends,” she admits.

Those jobs revealed to her she wasn’t a 9-to-5 person, and gave her an inside look at which businesses thrive. She wanted to start something of her own, but needed a great idea. “I felt I had to do something new and different.”

The idea came during a visit to China last year. She tasted ice cream made with liquid nitrogen, and was convinced she had a winner. She got her boyfriend Dee Lin, a chef, on the task of improving the flaws in the product: it melted too fast and lacked taste.

The two worked together last winter to develop a series of perfect recipes. Using the proceeds from her many jobs, plus the earnings on a very smart Toronto condo investment she made on behalf of her parents, she gathered enough cash to start the business.

Co-owner Di Lin creates a Tiramisu ice cream.  (Anne-Marie Jackson)  

She found this spot last spring, but the landlord wasn’t sure about the young entrepreneur. “Why not let me try?” she said, arguing that the numerous Asian restaurants nearby were flourishing. He gave in.

Li, with Lin as partner, opened on July 15 with a small but tasty ice cream menu. Most servings sell for $6.25, with Tiramisu being the best seller. Also on offer are Matcha and Black Rice, among others.

Co-owner Ritsa Li tasted ice cream made with liquid nitrogen while she was on a trip to China, and was convinced she had a winner.  (Anne-Marie Jackson)  

The cold from the nitrogen turns the creamy mixture into ice cream in just a few minutes.

The freshly made creation is scooped into a cup — most customers opt for Li’s invention, the “smoky cup.” It’s a double cup with liquid nitrogen poured in between the two. So customers get to eat their treats with cool smoke pouring out of them for the first few minutes. (These cups are so nifty she sold out of them in under a month and had to order more.)

This ultra creamy treat — there’s no water involved, so you don’t get that ice crystal texture here, just a buttery cold dessert — offers great taste and a big wow factor. Special enough to be a welcome newcomer in the city’s busy ice cream scene.
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