Dispatches from Abroad: Bookending a Year in (Crème) Brûlèes

What an eventful year. COVID has gone and come again and gone and come again and… we’re acclimating to living and dying with it. The war between Ukraine and Russia has all the features of a 20th-century conflict that could explode into another world war. Inflation is rampant, 45 is still making headlines, the world is overheating, and the floodwaters are rising. Where is the light in this sea of gloom? Dessert.

A photo of a vanilla bean crème brûlèe
The vanilla bean crème brûlèe with fresh berries at the Blue Bell Inn, Blue Bell, Pennsylvania

We returned to Philadelphia in August 2021 for another family weekend, the last for nearly a year while I was overseas. The crème brûlèe at the Blue Bell Inn—a vanilla bean crème brûlèe with fresh berries—was much better than the pair eaten in the different area restaurants where we had dined in May 2021. The delicious crème was not too sweet, but it was a little on the firm side; perhaps it had been stiffened to compensate for the alcohol in the vanilla extract (although it did have some ground vanilla, too). The brûlèe was excellent: crackling but not over-burnt. The berries were not local, but were still a nice complement to a very good dessert. A solid 8.5 (maybe even a 9) on the 1–10 scale.

A photograph of a crème brûlèe at the Black Whale
An excellent crème brûlèe at the Black Whale, New Bedford

In early October on a fine fall day, we ate outdoors by the New Bedford (Massachusetts) harbor at the Black Whale Seafood Restaurant and Bar. After an excellent lunch of oysters, fish, and lobster, the crème brûlèe was fine finish. The brûlèe was crisp and just the right degree of glassiness, while the crème was excellent and not overly sweet. But for the unncessary powdered sugar and the imported strawberry, this would have garnered a 10.

I spent much of November and early December at the University of St. Andrews on the east coast of Scotland, but crème brûlèes weren’t in evidence at the restaurants that had re-opened as COVID restrictions were eased in the UK. A few days in Liverpool for the annual meeting of the British Ecological Society and a premier league football match were complemented by exhibitions at the Tate Liverpool and a couple of first-class restaurants, but still no crème brûlèes. My month in the UK month wrapped up with two days and two nights in London, which included an unexceptional delayed train from Liverpool, the requisite PCR test prior to a brief return to the US, and dinner with my nephew-in-law at Pied à Terre, which was celebrating its 30th anniversary with a menu featuring the favorite courses of the restaurant’s many chefs. Although there were no crème brûlèes among the offerings, there were two fine desserts on the tasting menu.

First up was Richard Neat’s “30th anniversary special” crème cassonade. This close relative of a crème brûlèe featured an incredibly smooth crème topped with sugared and carmelized nuts (probably pecans or pralines). The second was Shane Osborn’s panna cotta with pears poached in red wine, pain d’épices, and fromage frais. Both desserts were simply outstanding.

After less than a week back in Boston, I headed on to Singapore for some vacation and the Lunar New Year celebrations with family and friends there. Unlike the previous year, when the only crème brûlèe to be had was a take-away from awfully chocolate, this visit featured not one, but two crème brûlèes in short succession.

First up was lunch at Socieaty, a multi-restaurant pop-up concept in the One Farrer Hotel. We had a mix-and-match meal: a Peranakan lunch from Indigo Blue followed by the crème brûlèe from the Italian Peperoni Pizzarea. The crème and the brûlèe were both as good as they come, but the dessert suffered for the underripe strawberries. 

Two weeks later, we had afternoon coffee and snacks at Paul Bakery. The berry crème brûlèe caught my eye, but disappointed the palate. The brûlèe was a bit thin and chewy, rather than crispy. The crème was a bit sweet, and although pleasingly not grainy, could have been firmer. 

In mid-February, I began a four-month fellowship at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in Uppsala. Outstanding lunches were part of the fellowship package, so I saved exploration of the local restaurants for weekends and the two-week Easter vacation. These forays yielded up three crème brûlèes.

Nearest to my flat and just west of the Botanical Garden was the aptly named Bistro Hörnan. Their crème brûlèe was about average. The brûlèe wasn’t crispy enough and the crème was too sweet. The strawberry ice cream was a good complement and pushed the overall desert up to an 8. 

The crème brûlèe at Domtrappkälleren was somewhat better, which was unsurprising, since they share the kitchen with DomCraft, where I had a similar crème brûlèe on my previous visit to Uppsala. Here, the brûlèe was a bit thicker and crispier and the crème was too pudding-like.

Last up was the crème brûlèe at Hambergs Fisk, one of the most outstanding restaurants in Uppsala. Their crème brûlèe matched the meal: nearly perfect in all ways.

A photograph of an onion brûlèe
The onion brûlèe at Augusto’s of Madison, Warminster, Pennsylvania

After I returned to the US at the end of June, this circuit concluded back in Philadelphia. A family dinner at Augusto’s of Madison in Warminster featured not one, but two brûlèes! The dinner began with Augusto’s justifiably famous onion brûlèe. This savory bite consisted of a carmelized onion round, gently brûlèed and then  stuffed with lump crabmeat (and no filler!), atop a bearnaise sauce and some gently wilted spinach, and finished with fresh radish sprouts. This very innovative appetizer was melt-in-the-mouth delicious.

A photograph of a crème brûlèe from Augusto's of Madison
Classic crème brûlèe at Augusto’s of Madison, Warminster, Pennsylvania

Appropriately, the dinner ended with a classic crème brûlèe. The server informed us that chef Augusto Jalon had maintained the same recipe for this dessert for 18 years and it had been on the menu continuously since then. The crème was just right and lightly warmed. The strawberry and blackberries were seasonal and fresh. But the brûlèe was a bit soft and just a bit over-burnt, perhaps because we were the last table for the night, and we got the last crème brûlèe in the kitchen. Worth a return trip for both brûlèes, but next time I’ll order the crème brûlèe for my second appetizer!   

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