JUST AS FROZEN yogurt is becoming a household word, a new cooler is inching its way toward Washington. Health food hits the mainstream once again, this time with Tofutti--ice cream made with tofu.

Soybean ice cream is not an original idea, but Tofutti is innovative because it is sold soft-serve and doesn't have a strong bean taste. Made from a "pasteurized tofu dessert base" consisting, among other ingredients, of water, soybean oil, soy protein and soy lecithin, it comes in banana pecan, maple walnut and the usual chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, and contains about the same amount of calories as frozen yogurt, but is non-dairy. Sort of a kosher Carvel, especially when you consider its creator.

Manufactured by Tofutime Inc., the product is the brainchild of David Mintz, a New York kosher caterer, restaurateur and orthodox Jew. Mintz's incentive was simple. He was looking for alternatives to his fresh fruit desserts and stumbled upon the soybean curd after reading about it in a book. Knowing of its Oriental origin, he headed for New York's Chinatown, ending up in the basement of a store where employes were manufacturing the stuff. "That's how a nice Jewish boy learned about tofu," Mintz said.

After that day more than 10 years ago, "Mintz the Prince of Tofu"--as he was eventually to be called by one soybean publication--became obsessed with it. It had the "consistency of cheese, milk and cream, without all their negatives," he said. At his New York food carryouts, his restaurant and his catering business, he began substituting tofu for the cream in beef stroganoff and combining tofu with vegetables in his egg rolls. For the Jewish holidays, Mintz sold his matzo balls spiked with tofu, which even landed in his homemade gefilte fish. And for a vegetarian wedding party, he catered an all-tofu menu, complete with mini-whole wheat bread hors d'oeuvres topped with pure'ed herbed tofu and pimiento.

After fiddling with a product that Mintz himself admits by itself is "so bland--but I know how far I can go with it," he started working on Tofutti. And now, after four years of development, the quasi-ice cream is Mintz's full-time business. Soft-serve Tofutti was a hit last summer in New York at Zabar's and Bloomingdale's and spread to Hawaii, California and Massachusetts, where adventurous eaters have been quick to catch on. In September, he hopes to distribute a hard-pack version in pints and quarts in supermarket freezer cases.

This summer, Tofutti has finally made its way into slowpoke Washington. Right now, though, it is available only at Crescents, a creative cafeteria-style eatery in International Square's Metro Market. Located adjacent to the Farragut West Metro station, where the morning rush-hour crowd looks as if they're all late for a deposition, and where at lunch, Crescents' owner Barbara Zuckerman said, "You can hardly get them to stop talking about work on line," some patrons "flip out, they walk away," when they learn the product contains tofu. So sometimes, Zuckerman said, she doesn't tell patrons what's in it until after they taste it. And she has noticed close-mouthed parents buying cones for their uninformed children.

Zuckerman, who originally spotted the product in a New York croissant shop, said Tofutti attracted her attention because she had installed a soft-serve machine in her restaurant, but is not allowed to dispense frozen yogurt because of lease restrictions. (Yummy Yogurt, also located in Metro Market, has the exclusive rights to it in that location.)

Mintz says the "yogurt people look at it as competition." And Mitch Berliner of Berliner's, Tofutti's Washington distributor, said he has tried to sell other local restaurants soft-serve Tofutti, but that he was met with disinterest because with frozen yogurt "they already have something that they're making a profit from." It's "too high priced," said Sheldon Fisher, owner of Yummy Yogurt, who was approached with the product. Thus, said Berliner, he has decided to "wait for the pints," which he will try to sell to specialty shops.

Although some Washingtonians have been reticent about trying Tofutti, it is slowly attracting a following among those who taste it. Zuckerman said she has a group of regulars who call and instead of asking, "What's the soup of the day?" ask for an update on the day's Tofutti flavor.

Mintz realizes that he has a lot of educating to do before the masses will accept the idea of a tofu treat. As a result, a Tofutti salesman is combing the country with promotional literature. The thrust of the salesman's spiel, said Mintz, is fourfold: 1) it's a dairy-free product (for kosher kitchens or for those with lactose intolerance); 2) it contains no cholesterol; 3) it's low in calories and 4) it tastes good.

If anything, Tofutti is heavy on sweetness--high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and honey in this case. Eaten soft-serve, its texture is similar to frozen yogurt, although not as creamy and without its tart kick. Calorie statistics rank it at 128 per four-ounce serving (Fisher says Yummy Yogurt's flavors average about 130 per four ounces), and it sells at Crescents for $1 (Yummy Yogurt sells its four-ounce serving for 85 cents).

Mintz has grand plans for the future of Tofutti--and tofu. His marketing strategy goes like this: After rolling out the pints, he may open "gourmet tofu shops"--health-oriented carryouts featuring his soybean ice cream, plus tofu-containing brownies, lasagna and pizza. Right now he's writing a tofu cookbook and has put himself on a tofu diet (12 pounds gone in three weeks so far). "It's the food of the future," claims Mintz. The kosher caterer from New York has switched from knishes to "spending the rest of my life educating people about tofu--God be willing."