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Fancy soft-serve ice cream is a dessert trend we can all get behind

The soft-serve at Red Apron Burger Bar can be adorned with a variety of toppings, including Fruity Pebbles. (Rose Collins/Red Apron Burger Bar)

You're probably used to seeing soft-serve ice cream and its signature ridged swirl at mall kiosks and beach stands. But now chef-driven restaurants are embracing this frozen dessert, too.

"Desserts should be approachable and delicious," and soft-serve definitely qualifies, said Michael Friedman, chef and co-owner at All-Purpose, which creates the treat in conjunction with neighboring Buttercream Bakeshop. Though the flavors change every so often, it's been on the menu at the Shaw pizzeria since it opened last year. Friedman said he was inspired by not only his fondness for grabbing a cone at the beach but also his memories of eating soft-serve at the old-school pizzerias of his youth.

Brandon Malzahn, corporate pastry chef of Fabio Trabocchi's restaurant group, agreed on the nostalgic draw.

"Diners like it because it kind of reminds them of childhood," Malzahn said. Trabocchi's newest restaurant, the Van Ness pasta house Sfoglina, opened late last year with soft-serve gelato on the menu, and it was so popular that the team decided to feature it on the menu at Casa Luca downtown, as well.

Soft-serve, as the name indicates, has a softer texture than traditional ice cream or gelato. That's in part because it has less fat and more air. The base typically includes milk, sugar, stabilizers, flavorings and sometimes another type of dairy, such as cream, as at Sfoglina, or half-and-half, as at All-Purpose.

At Sfoglina, diners are treated like members of a pronounced pasta club

In addition to the fact that soft-serve is just plain fun to eat, there are also practical reasons why restaurants are embracing it. One is the set-it and forget-nature of the dessert, said Naomi Gallego, corporate pastry chef at Neighborhood Restaurant Group, whose Red Apron Burger Bar and Bluejacket brewery have it on the menu. You pour the base into the machine and voilà — fresh soft-serve on demand for the entire shift. All you need to do is clean the machine at the end of the night.

And even though chefs need to make room for the soft-serve machine itself, they don't have to worry about freezer space. Friedman said he was considering offering gelato at All-Purpose, but decided that since he didn't need a freezer for anything else, soft-serve made even more sense.

Diners, however, probably aren't thinking about that kind of behind-the-scenes rationale. There's just something about soft-serve that draws them in, as the popularity of the dessert at these restaurant proves.

"If I see it on the menu, I definitely order it," Gallego said. "It sells itself."

Where to find soft-serve ice cream at Washington restaurants:

All-Purpose: Strawberry soft-serve with strawberry Campari jam, crumbled almond cake and whipped cream. 1250 Ninth St. NW.

Bluejacket: Gianduja (hazelnut-chocolate) and vanilla swirl with caramelized banana, candied hazelnuts and chocolate pearls (starting Friday). 300 Tingey St. SE.

Casa Luca and Sfoglina: Soft-serve vanilla gelato or strawberry sorbet (or a swirl of the two) with caramel sauce. Casa Luca, 1099 New York Ave. NW; Sfoglina, 4445 Connecticut Ave. NW.

Daikaya: Vanilla garnished with such topping combinations as crushed wasabi peas, Calpico (a Japanese milk beverage similar to yogurt) and chocolate crisps or avocado-lime sauce with toasted coconut. 705 Sixth St. NW.

Doi Moi: Rotating flavors include cucumber basil and banana cocoa. 1800 14th St. NW.

Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana: Vanilla soft-serve with Meyer lemon curd, marshmallow and pie crust. 12207 Darnestown Rd., Darnestown.

Momofuku: Cereal milk or "b'day" soft-serve from Milk Bar. 1090 I St. NW.

Red Apron Burger Bar: Vanilla or chocolate soft-serve with an array of optional toppings (Oreos, peanuts, etc.). It can also be blended with root beer (blends with beer or other alcohol are a possibility in the future). 1323 Connecticut Ave. NW.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Naomi Gallego as Neighborhood Restaurant Group's executive pastry chef. The correct title is corporate pastry chef. This version has been updated.

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