Dispatches from Abroad: Searching for Crème Brûlèes in the Post-COVID Dawn

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts now ranks third in the country in fully vaccinated individuals (over 18), just behind Vermont and Connecticut, and the northeast overall is doing really well. As restaurants and bakeries return to full service, more paths to crème brûlèes continue to open up. And I am hot on their trail.

In the last few months, we have hunted the magical pastry on short trips in May to Philadelphia to visit family and in July to Williamstown for R&R. And after my retirement party on Saturday, at a nice Sunday brunch here in Boston. Maybe it’s a case of setting the bar too high, or perhaps it just going to take more time to get back into gear, but four crème brûlèes and a panna cotta later, I’m still no closer to the ideal. So here are some to avoid.

crème brûlèe at La Provence, Ambler, PA
The vanilla-bean crème brûlèe, La Provence, Ambler, PA

The no-frills crème brûlèe at La Provence in Ambler, PA looked nice but didn’t deliver on the palette. The crème was somewhat watery, although the addition of ground vanilla was a nice touch. The brûlèe was better, but could have been a bit crispier and more “burnt”. I rated it 7/10, which may have been somewhat inflated by the wondrousness of getting together with family for the first time in nearly 18 months combined with an exquisite outdoor dining experience.

 

The next day we stopped at Carlino’s Bakery in West Chester. This amazing Italian grocery and bakery had a display case full of delectable pastries; the “crème brûlèes” were smack in the middle.

The pastry case at Carlino's Italian grocery
The pastry case at Carlino’s Italian grocery

A photograph of a mock crème brûlèe at Carlino's Italian grocery
A mock crème brûlèe at Carlino’s

I put crème brûlèe in scare quotes because alas this was neither crème nor brûlèe, but rather simply a browned vanilla pudding. The addition of a dollop of vanilla creme and an overly sweet candy flower did not help this disappointing dessert. 

 

Two months after the unsuccessful dessert forays in Philadelphia, we spent a beautiful July weekend in Williamstown. I think we managed to experience the only two consecutive dry and sunny days in the entire record-setting month for rainfall in Massachusetts! But maybe the damp seeped into the desserts.

 

A photo of a maple crème brûlèe at The Barn in Williamstown, Massachusetts
The maple crème brûlèe at The Barn

Our first night we had dinner at The Barn at the Williams Inn. The pre-dinner cocktails mixed by the enthusiastic bartender were excellent, and the appetizers and mains were delicious. I anticipated a similarly fine maple crème brûlèe for dessert, but it was not to be. The carmelized maple-sugar brûlèe was soft yet over-burnt, perhaps a consequence of using maple sugar in lieu of the “white death” cane sugar. The crème was somewhat thin and watery. 

 

A photo of a panna cotta with blackberries
Mezze’s buttermilk panna cotta

After three strikes in a row, I thought maybe I should be a bit more adventurous with dessert. The following night, we went to Mezze. Another outstanding dinner, and since they didn’t have crème brûlèe on the menu, I ordered the closest equivalent: a buttermilk panna cotta. You can think of a panna cotta as crème without the brûlèe. The creamy part is made from cream or milk (in this case, buttermilk) and thickened with gelatin. At Mezze, the panna cotta was dressed with fresh blackberries. As I was not expecting crème brûlèe, I wasn’t disappointed. The panna cotta was a fine end to a delicious meal, but as I haven’t had nearly as many panna cottas as crème brûlèes, it’s hard to rank this one.

A photo of the Stoner's Delight dessert from Banyan Bar and Refuge, Boston
The Stoner’s Delight

And finally, yesterday found us at Banyan Bar & Refuge in Boston’s South End. The dessert options are few, but the Stoner’s Delight features (from the bottom up) banana, peanut butter mousse, the thickest chocolate ganache in the known universe (it probably accounts for all that missing “dark matter”), and brûlèed fluff (meringue). A crème brûlèe it certainly isn’t, but the brûlèed fluff was perfect. 

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