Dispatches from Abroad: In Search of the Perfect Crème Brûlèe

As readers of this blog know, I do enjoy a good (or at least innovative or weird) meal. And foodies know that a good dessert can make or break the overall dining experience. In fact, I rarely order desserts – my waistline doesn’t need it, the options are rarely interesting, and eating anything with chocolate after about two in the afternoon inevitably keeps me up at night. But I do have a soft spot for crème brûlèes. Anytime I see one on a menu, I’ll order it. And then I’ll extol its virtues or decry its vices, either way driving my dinner companions deep into their digestifs.

One’s first interaction with a crème brûlèe is always the brûlèe – the topping of gently torched sugar that always reminds me of isinglass. Everyone has their own ideal brûlèe. Mine is one that is not too thick but breaks into bite-sizes shards with a single tap of the spoon. It should have just a hint of carbonization, but not be overburned. And it should dissolve on the tongue. Beneath the brûlèe is the custard. A traditional crème brûlèe has a vanilla custard that should be creamy, not grainy, and never a pudding. It is rare to find a simple vanilla crème brûlèe on a menu anymore. More commonly, dessert chefs are adding various accoutrements; I have had crème brûlèes with maple syrup, rum, cinnamon, ginger, and coconut. It is difficult to get any of these just right, as just the right touch is needed to maintain the integrity of the vanilla custard as it interacts with any of these additional ingredients. Finally, a crème brûlèe should never have a crust. It should be nestled in the confines of a small ramekin. The well-cooked custard should be just set and neither stick nor ooze away from the sides of the dish.

While continuing a heavy travel schedule in the last year, I started keeping track of the crème brûlèes I had around the world. This is the what I hope will be the first installment in occasional postings from my never-ending quest for the holy grail of desserts: the prefect crème brûlèe. And because good meals are only part of a broader contextual experience, some background is provided with each entry.

January 13, 2018

Flossie and I were in Burlington, Vermont for a few days while Nick Gotelli and I were working on our current book project. On a snowy and icy night (are there any other kinds in mid-winter in Vermont?), we three, along with Nick’s wife Maryanne, and our friends Aimée Classen and Nate Sanders met in nearby Richmond at the Kitchen Table Bistro. After an excellent and varied meal, I ordered their Cinnamon Stick Crème Brûlée with Sea Salted Shortbread Cookies.

kitchen-table-richmond-vt-cb-20180113_200621The brûlèe was slightly overburnt, but of reasonable thickness. The custard was very good with subtle cinnamon imparting a good flavor. Memorable more for the company than for the dessert itself.

January 19, 2018

Our comfort-food destination at home in Boston is the Island Creek Oyster Bar in Kenmore Square. We’ve learned through experience that the appetizers, and of course, the diversity of oysters on the menu, are far better than the main courses, and we usually fill up on the former and rarely have room for desserts. But on this visit, there was on the menu a Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée with Gingersnaps and Pear Sorbet.

island-creek-cb-boston-20180119_181152The perfect brûlèe overtopped a vanilla custard unadulterated by extraneous flavors. Rather than add ginger to the custard, this crème brûlèe was complemented with a small ginger candy, a gingerbread cookie, and just-right-sweet pear sorbet. This crème brûlèe was one of two for the year that approached perfection.

February 5, 2018

Just a few weeks later, Flossie and I had emptied the refrigerator prior to our (Chinese) New Year’s trip to Singapore, and so in search of dinner, we walked into La Voile, on Boston’s Newbury Street. I completed this otherwise excellent French Bistro meal with their Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée.

lavoile-vanilla-cb-20180205_192859Although the brûlèe was perfect, the custard tilted towards a disappointing pudding, and the strawberries were from far away. ‘Nuf said.

February 14, 2018

Ten days later, we were in Singapore for Chinese New Year. Singapore is justifiably famous for the high quality and diversity of its food, but it is rare that among all the different ethnic and fusion restaurants one gets classic “Singaporean” food. But on this evening, we went with my in-laws to Folklore, which serves traditional Singaporean dishes. Although I wasn’t expecting it to be a crème brûlèe, the Baked Custard with Gula Melaka (coconut-palm sugar) suggested it might be a southeast Asian close-equivalent.

folklore-singapore-cb-20180214_201810Indeed, this was more like a classic Latin American flan (coconut custard), albeit with a brûléed palm-sugar topping, than a crème brûlée. The brûlée was good, if a bit thick and unevenly torched. The coconut flakes were a nice touch, but they couldn’t save the grainy custard.

April 30, 2018

In April, I was in Melbourne, Australia, working with colleagues at the Independent Schools Victoria and presenting some workshops for schools on the intersection of art and science. Like Singapore, Melbourne is renowned for its innovative restaurants. One night, we went to Gazi Restaurant, a Hellenic-fusion restaurant in downtown Melbourne. After a delicious meal marred only by the seemingly 100-decibel volume of music and conversations in the restaurant, I ordered the Krema Kataifi (Crème Brûlée, Crispy Kataifi, Pistachia).

gazi-melbourne-cb-20180430_201337Like the rest of the items on menu, this Krema Kataifi was a fusion of styles and flavors. The classic crème brûlée custard – here nothing but a basic vanilla pudding – was topped with an Arabic-Turkish-Hellenic bird’s nest pastry (kataifi), raspberries, mint leaves, and flower petals. There was no opportunity to brûlée the topping, which would have left just a residue of charred kataifi. Overall, this was much more enjoyable to look at than to eat.

July 3, 2018

Back home for the summer, we found ourselves at a dinner party at Harvest Restaurant in Cambridge, wrapping up this summer’s session of Leading Learning that Matters with Independent Schools Victoria. Harvest is well-known and praised for its creative uses of local ingredients in delectable dishes. For dessert, I had the Choux à la Crème Brûlée (Pistachio, Vanilla Bean Mousseline, Elderflower & Apricot Sorbet).

harvest-boston-cb-20180703_182544This was another attempt at fusion of styles, which rarely is successful with a crème brûlèe. And unfortunately, this was no exception. The brûlèe was overburnt and too thick to break easily. The custard was pudding-like and grainy (not as hoped with the promised mousseline), but not too sweet. The unexpected (only because I had missed the “Choux” in the dessert’s title) pastry shell was tasty but rubbery. This desert was saved by the sorbet.

September 28, 2018

nan thai atlanta thai tea creme brulee 20180928_190208In September, Flossie and I went to Atlanta, where we visited the Atlanta Botanical Garden and had a behind-the-scenes tour of the greenhouses and the carnivorous plant collection. I gave a talk about carnivorous plants and the large book I’ve edited on them (Carnivorous Plants: Physiology, Ecology, and Evolution). On our last night in Atlanta, we went to a justifiably highly-rated Thai restaurant, Nan Fine Dining. This restaurant, a bit outside the main downtown area, surprised us with its innovative Thai dishes. None was more surprising than seeing a Thai Tea Crème Brûlée on the dessert menu.

Of all the year’s crème brûlèes, this one was my hands-down favorite in terms of its presentation. It came in a long, thin ramekin reminiscent of an áo dài. Although the brûlèe was very fine, the Thai tea custard was less than perfect and a little grainy. And while I prefer my custard less sweet, this one actually could have been sweeter. The flower of whipped cream was a very nice touch.

 

 

November 17, 2018

This mid-November weekend found me shuttling between New Haven, Connecticut, where I gave the keynote talk at this year’s final event week of the World Scholar’s Cup, and the ginormous temple to excess consumption that is the Woodbury Common premium outlets mall, where Flossie, my in-laws, my parents, and sister, brother-in-law, and niece were engaging in America’s favorite past-time (no, not baseball, the other one). After a long day talking and driving (for me) and shopping (for them), we had an outstanding Italian dinner at La Vera Cucina, in nearby Monroe, NY.

la vera cucina-monroe-ny-cb-20181117_191605Their no-frills, home-cooked crème brûlée was well above-average. The brûlèe was excellent and just the right thickness. The custard was very creamy and not at all grainy, marred only by being just a little too sweet for my taste.

December 17, 2018

December found us in the UK for the annual meeting of the British Ecological Society in Birmingham. Although Birmingham doesn’t have the foodie reputation of the larger city to its southeast (that would be London, for the geographically impaired), we did find a number of excellent restaurants. For one of my birthday dinners we went to Opus, where we had an incredibly innovative meal topped off with their Rum and Cinnamon Crème Brûlée.

rum-creme-brulee-opus-20181217-ame-212820This birthday crème brûlée was the only other one of the year to come close to perfection. The brûlée was just a little thick but was just the right degree of carmelized. The custard was creamy and excellent, the rum and cinnamon combined in smoothly, and their flavors complemented the vanilla without overpowering it.

January 19, 2019

A year and five continents after I started this crème brûlée odyssey, I spent a weekend in Santiago after a week working with my colleague Ronny Vallejos on spatial statistics at the Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María in one of my favorite cities in the world, beautiful Valparaíso, Chile. Just a short distance from my hotel, I found Le Bistrot Việt. After an outstanding vegan stir-fry and a pot of fresh green tea, I indulged in their Crème Brûlée avec lait de coco et fruit de saison.

bistro viet santiago cb 20190119_132451_resizedThis surprising crème brûlée was really a classic coconut custard (flan) that had been gently brûléed on top. Dressed up with fresh strawberries and mint, passionfruit and raspberry emulsions, and dollops of whipped cream, it was delightful to look at and had just the right degree of sweetness. It got a happy face in my notes, and I left the meal, and my 12 months of searching for the perfect crème brûlée, pleasantly sated.

The quest continues…

Dispatches from Abroad: China, Farewell

After nine weeks and nine provinces, I left China on October 15. I spent the following week in Japan – a short vacation in Tokyo and at a ryokan in Hakone – before returning to the US on October 21. Just in time to vote early in my home state of Massachusetts (I was the first in my small town to vote on the first day of early voting in Massachusetts, October 24), before heading on to South America for the last two months of my sabbatical.

So now, settled in at the Hotel Ibis on the waterfront of picturesque Valparaiso, Chile, and gearing up for two weeks of statistics research with my colleagues Ronny Vallejos at the Universidad Tecnica Federico Santa Maria here in Valparaiso, and Hannah Buckley and Brad Case from Lincoln University in New Zealand, I thought I’d set down a few semi-final reflections about China. If you’re not into reading, though, you can skip over the text and go right on to my favorite photos from my time in China.

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Dispatches from Abroad: Kunming Cuisine

One of my Malaysian-Chinese colleagues once told me that “if it walks with its back to the sky” then it’s fair game for a Chinese table. The twice-daily walk through one of Kunming’s open-air markets between my hotel and the Kunming Institute of Zoology (KIZ) where I’m spending my last 10 days in China certainly supports her adage. It also should give one pause at the dinner table.

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Dispatches from Abroad: Beijing Bebop

The seminar storm has wound down – in the last 11 days, I’ve given 12 talks at 10 universities and research institutes in three major cities spanning nearly 2000 km It’s a new personal record for me that, despite the daily adrenaline rushes, I’d rather not repeat anytime soon.

flag_of_the_peoples_republic_of_china-svgSince the beginning of this week, I’ve been based at the Chinese Academy of Science’s Research Center for Eco-Environmental Research (RCEES) in northwest Beijing, conveniently down the road from the Chinese National Science Foundation offices and more-or-less around the corner from Peking University. The skies have been clear, the taxi rides uneventful as I’ve shuttled to and from seminars at the Institute for Tibetan Plateau Research [2], Beijing Normal University [1], Minzu University [1], Peking University [2], RCEES [2], the food plentiful and interesting, and the friends and colleagues wonderful. And today, October 1, is China’s National Day, celebrating the founding of the People’s Republic of China on this day in 1949.

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Dispatches from Abroad: The unBalanced ecoLOGist Noshes in Nanjing

On Sunday (that’s right, Sunday), Eryuan Liang and I took the morning high-speed train 1200 km in under 4 hours, and on time to the minute, from Beijing to Nanjing to give afternoon seminars at Nanjing Forestry University (established 1902). I was on tap to talk about forest foundation species, while Eryuan was set to talk about dresses (actually alpine treelines, but without any sense or irony, the “p” was lost in translation). Sundays are great days to give seminars; attendance is always good because the students don’t have classes and the faculty don’t have meetings. The seminars were fine, but the banquet afterwards …

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The unBalanced ecoLOGist: The Shenyang Shuffle

It’s been almost a week since I’ve found any time to write a post from China. As I wrote last week, I left Beijing on Monday for Shenyang: the first four days of what has now turned into a 10-day, 9-lecture typhoon (yes indeed, a lot of hot air swirling around!) / movable feast (click on any image to view larger ones in a slide show).

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Dispatches from Abroad: At the End of the (Silk) Road

It took me a while, but on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, it finally occurred to me, when we reached Dunhuang with its massive sand dunes and crescent-moon lake presided over by a reconstructed temple, that all of the cities we’d stopped at on our nine-day circuit from Xining to Wulan to Dulan to Ge’ermu to Dunhuang to Shangye and back to Xining tonight were oases in an otherwise parched desert. These ancient springs and watering-holes had been obvious points of layover for camel trains, traders, monks, and charlatans, and now are thriving cities living on depleted groundwater and glacial meltwater-fed rivers.

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Crescent-moon lake at the Mingshashan dunes in Dunhuang. The lake, once amply supplied by groundwater, now needs to be pump-filled from alternative water supplies.

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Dispatches from Abroad: Foraging Across the Tibetan Plateau

The last couple of days we took a break from exploring treelines to cross the high cold desert along the Silk Road between the once-oases but now thriving cities Dulan and Ge’ermu (a.k.a. Golmud). This 500-km stretch of the Xining-to-Llhasa highway provided incredible views of geology-in-the-raw, and today’s day-trip from Ge’ermu south to the Kunlun Pass added camel trains, huge herds of sheep, a glacier field, and a railroad built atop permafrost.

I’ll get to the sights later. The really fascinating part of the last two days was the foraging for wild foods in a desert that, in the main, gets < 100 mm, and in many places, < 50 mm of rainfall a year. René Redzepi could have a lot of fun here!

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The unBalanced ecoLOGogist: Climbing onto the Roof of the World

Early Saturday morning, Eryuan Liang and I flew from Beijing to Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, which is the province to the east of Tibet. Qinghai and Tibet together span the Tibetan Plateau, but it’s much easier to travel into and around Qinghai. Even for Chinese scientists like Eryuan, who is a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Tibetan Plateau Research, which itself has a branch campus in Lhasa, it is far easier to do research in Qinghai than it is to do research in Tibet. And here be treelines, which are the focus of this nine-day field expedition.

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Panorama from the lower treeline at the Wulan site (click for a larger version)

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