Ca Lem Brings Creamy Creativity to NDG for a Fourth Season
Stephanie Le’s Flavours Provide Neighborhood With Unique Swirls
Froot loops and banana, s’mores, cinnamon toast crunch and apple, cotton candy—those are a few of the childhood reminiscent flavours of ice cream and sorbet Notre-Dame-de-Grâce residents fell in love with at Ca Lem this summer.
Ca Lem owner and creator Stephanie Le changed the neighbourhood’s business landscape when she moved to NDG about five years ago.
“Every night after supper I was really craving ice cream, but there was nothing [around here]. I’d have to go all the way downtown or the east side for good ice cream,” she said. “So I [thought] ‘Why not open a small, little ice cream shop?’ If I need ice cream, probably other people need ice cream around here too.”
Le describes herself as an artistic person—Ca Lem is the child of the joy she finds in food and creating along with her talent for marketing.
“I thought a small ice cream shop, for families, simple,” said Le. “After taking my classes on how to make ice cream, I got really creative and started thinking about how I can incorporate flavours from my culture; my background is Vietnamese.”
Ca Lem is an homage to Le’s parents, she explained, “who came from Vietnam during the war to start a new life for them and their kids.” Ca Lem means ice cream in Vietnamese.
The creamery is wrapping up their fourth season now. Le has been juggling her undergraduate studies in marketing at Concordia while running the business.
They offer 16 hard scoop flavours that rotate daily, and a soft-serve swirl that gets revealed every Wednesday and stays only for a week.
“Everytime you come to Ca Lem, it’s always hard to try because there’s always something new,” said Le. “We want to keep it fresh so people feel comfortable coming a few times a week, because summer is so short in Montreal.”
Le’s creativity doesn’t stop at ice cream making—Ca Lem’s Instagram grid is akin to an art gallery, with cones displayed in beautiful and alluring photos. With close to 23,000 followers on Instagram, Le is behind the shop’s thriving social media presence. She is constantly interacting with her clients on social media.
“Everyone is ready to tell us what they want, so it’s just a matter of listening to them and then making sure that comes into the ice cream,” said Le. “We have a very special connection with our followers.”
“For the soft serve ice cream spots, they are the most community-driven shop in Montreal. You go there and there’s lines and lines and lines of people, they have really grown a connection with the community in Montreal, and the families in Montreal.” — Alexandre Cohen
When she visited last week, Montreal photographer Monique Simone Weston had the s’mores soft-serve of the week. “People who love Ca Lem are religious about Ca Lem,” she said, adding that they are a cult ice cream shop in Montreal.
“It’s really cool that there is a spot that […] really embodies the spirit of Montreal summer,” said Weston.
Ca Lem offers a break from the routine—stepping in line on Ca Lem’s fake grass lawn on Sherbrooke St. W. starts your experience feeling like you’re walking into a funhouse.
Whether it’s flavours that “push the envelope” in their boldness—nutella, next to strawberry litchi, next to matcha crème brûlée—or in the richness of colours and textures—bright purple taro, next to baby yellow passion fruit & coconut, next to black sesame coconut ash—Ca Lem’s counter is a treat for the senses.
“Our goal is to really make sure that everyone who comes in Ca Lem,” said Le, “if you’re with your family or your group, that everybody finds something that they like at our shop.”
A few weeks ago, Ca Lem’s soft serve of the week was a blue and white swirl of coconut milk-based Tahitian vanilla ice cream and blueberry sorbet. The finishing touch was a crumble sprinkled on top of the cone.
Manager Steve Lamothe said that Le stayed up late into the night to make the crumble.
“That’s kind of the extra mile that she goes to make sure that everything has that warm feel to it, that homey feel to it,” said Lamothe. “And it shows in everything and in all the flavours from your childhood.”
Ca Lem is resolute in leaving an impression on their clients as they are rounding up their season to a close at the end of September. For instance, this month, Ca Lem has collaborated with the Montreal company Mid-Day Squares to offer a vegan swirl of chocolate and vanilla, topped with a piece of their chocolate square.
Lamothe said that he feels like a kid in a candy store at Ca Lem, with different flavours being introduced so often. One of his favourites is the hard scoop taro (a root vegetable) ice cream, tasting to him like a creamier version of vanilla.
“It’s very simple, it’s very elegant,” he said. “It’s purple. It’s nice. It’s something that I don’t think I can get tired of.” But he has been charmed by the strawberry cheesecake flavour, and anything that has blueberries in it.
“That’s my diet,” said Lamothe. “I eat ice cream and more ice cream.”
This week, Ca Lem has teamed up for a unique swirl with the beloved Montreal restaurant Arthurs Nosh Bar, run by Raegan Steinberg and her husband Alexandre Cohen. Together they came up with a grapefruit sorbet and yogourt ice cream soft serve, sprinkled with Arthurs Nosh Bar’s house-made granola.
“For the soft serve ice cream spots, [they are] the most community-driven shop in Montreal,” said Cohen. “You go there and there’s lines and lines and lines of people […] they have really grown a connection with the community in Montreal, and the families in Montreal.”
Cohen added that Ca Lem has a sense of “feeling like you’re at home.”
“That old-school Dairy Queen vibe, that families would go to and flock, and park their cars, and hang out outside—they really brought that back,” said Cohen, “that connection between families and ice cream.”
As for him, he loves the watermelon candy swirl, for the bright colours (pink and green) and the childhood memories of eating watermelon candies it brings back.
“It still blows my mind how we came up with it,” said Le. “One side is honeydew ice cream, dairy-based, and the other side is a strawberry sorbet. But the combination of both tastes just like the perfect watermelon candy.”
“I think that one is my best achievement so far, and is one of our most popular swirls.”
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