Dispatches from Abroad: The Continued Quest for the Perfect Crème Brûlèe

A little more than a year ago, I began to keep track of crème brûlèes I have enjoyed to greater or lesser degrees in my travels for work and play. In 2019, I took fewer trips afield or abroad than I had in 2018, but when I did travel, crème brûlèes were regularly encountered, eaten, and evaluated (see last year’s post for a detailed description of what I look for when approaching a crème brûlèe).

March 4, 2019

After a week at the Annual Assembly of the Biodiversity Exploratories in Wernigerode, Germany, a weekend enjoying art in Berlin (especially the newly restored pair of paintings by Caspar David Friedrich—The Monk by the Sea and The Abbey in the Oakwood—at the Alte Nationalgalerie), and the overnight series of perfectly-timed trains from Berlin to Uppsala, I found myself with colleagues from CEMUS at DomCraft, a unique bar and cafe in downtown Uppsala. Known mostly for its extensive selection of craft G&T’s and beers, they also had a crème brûlèe on the menu.

Creme Brulee at DomCraft, Uppsala

The brûlèe was slightly crisped well, but too thick. It was underlain by a custard that was little more than a thin, creamy pudding. Both were too sweet for my taste. Next time, I’ll stick with the much more memorable flight of stouts.

May 7, 2019

Closer to home, I had an excellent dinner at Ten Tables in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood with after Harvard’s annual Plant Biology Initiative symposium. Ten Tables is a local restaurant in every sense of the word: rooted in the neighborhood, locally-sourced ingredients in meals and beverages; and committed to environmentally sustainable operations. It was a great meal and a great opportunity to reconnect with a former student, Lila Fishman, whom I hadn’t seen since I taught at Swarthmore College in the late 1980s.

Creme Brulee at Ten Tables, Jamaica Plain

The excellent custard was covered by a toffee-like brûlèe lacking the expected crunch. The accompanying fruit was a fresh and seasonal palette-pleaser, but the unnecessary cookie was cardboard-like.

May 11, 2019

Later that week, Flossie and I were visiting my parents and sister in Philadelphia. We spent a morning wandering around the Italian Market, which bills itself as The Nation’s Oldest Outdoor Market. In the middle of the 9th Street district is Isgro Pastries, famous for its cannoli and other Italian sweet delights. Emphasizing the international reach of the crème brûlèe, the pastry case had a whole tray of them. Irresistable!

The custard was good, but the brûlèe was soft (perhaps not torched after baking?), and the fruit was large, watery, and unexceptional. The cannoli were much better.

June 22, 2019

The following month, I took the commuter rail from Boston to Providence (Rhode Island) for a day at the annual joint meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the American Society of Naturalists, and the Society of Systematic Biologists. I was there in my capacity as one of the Senior Editors of the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, talking with interested attendees about whether their projects might make a good paper for the journal (if you’ve got an idea for a paper, contact us!). At the end of the day, a few of us from the journal went to the nearby New Rivers restaurant for dinner. A new Providence institution, the dinner was an excellent combination of small plates and classic entrées. Although I was disappointed not to find a crème brûlée on the menu, their Vanilla Pot de Crème with hazelnuts, a mint leaf, and a lemon shortbread cookie was a delightful alternative.

Vanilla pot de creme, New Rivers, Providence

October 31, 2019

Fall found me, Flossie, and her mother and two sisters in Burlington, Vermont, for a short stay en route to a weekend in Montreal. We had a delicious Hallowe’en dinner at Leunig’s Bistro, watching through the window as costumed children and adults dodged the pelting raindrops. A Burlington institution, Leunig’s feels like a Parisian café, with desserts to match.

Creme brulee at Leunig's Bistro, Vermont

This was a near-perfect crème brûlée. The brûlée held it’s own but wasn’t too chewy. The custard was excellent. The fresh fruit was a good addition here, and was not overwhelming. I know where I’ll be for dessert the next time I’m in Burlington!

December 11, 2019

creme brulee at 44 hill street, belfastAfter an incredible (for me, these last many years) eight months without a transcontinental or transoceanic plane trip, I spent two weeks of December on the island of Ireland, including a week in Northern Ireland and a week in the eponymous independent country. I was in Belfast for the annual meeting of the British Ecological Society; the restaurants were uniformly excellent, and yes, they all served one or more sides of potatoes. We did discover, though, that most of the restaurants stopped serving food at around 9pm, shifting (if they remained open) to all-liquid fare. An exception was 44 hill street, a Mediterranean-style restaurant located at the address from which it derives its name. I had the classic—and delicious—Roast Turkey and Ham Christmas dinner, and topped it off with a similarly delicious crème brûlée.

Although many pastry chefs can’t resist adding cookies and fruit to a crème brûlée, this one fortunately had the accompaniments “on the side”, as it were. The brûlée was nearly perfect: crisp but not burnt and just the right thickness. The custard was only a bit thin, and not at all grainy. I’d have been better off skipping the compote (a bit tart, perhaps the berries were underripe or recently thawed) and the shortbread cookie (a bit dry, perhaps not enough butter). But fortunately, I had saved one bite of the crème brûlée to conclude the meal.

December 17, 2019

After the meetings ended, Flossie met me for a week of vacation in Dublin. We enjoyed the museums, the street scenes, a day trip to Galway and the Cliffs of Moher, and a series of outstanding restaurants. One of them—Wilde—we went to twice, once for lunch and once for high tea. The lunch was good and the high tea incredible, and the Vanilla crème brûlée, unforgettable.

creme brulee wilde dublin

The crispy, thin brûlée covered a smooth, light custard. The blackberries were not oversweet and perfectly complemented the crème brûlée itself. If it weren’t for the carbon cost, I’d fly back for another one.

January 30, 2020

We wrapped up the lunar year with our annual trip to Singapore for Chinese New Year festivities and, of course, food. Crème brûlée is not a Singaporean staple, but a local fusion dessert at TWG merits mention.

Creme brulee pie at TWG, Singapore

This “Singapore Surprise” is a crème brûlée pie with baked-in strawberries. The custard was a reasonable facsimile of the expected crème but the brûlée on top was soft, not crispy. The strawberries (definitely not locally-grown) were sweet and complemented the pie well. TWG’s pastry chef gets high marks for the originality and creativity of the Singapore Surprise, but a crème brûlée it is not.

Much more travel is on the calendar for 2020 (unless COVID-19 intervenes), so stay tuned for the next round of dessert discoveries…

2 thoughts on “Dispatches from Abroad: The Continued Quest for the Perfect Crème Brûlèe

  1. It’s all the variables involved that make this dessert edible science for you! 💟💟 On the local front, check out Old Deerfield, Champney’s Restaurant in the Deerfield Inn. They serve a lovely little trio in small ramekins. I enjoyed them but didn’t necessarily try them with any specific criteria 🤪‼️ Good to see you blogging again

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