(Editor’s note: This Four Stars review originally was published on June 25, 2013.)
To create an ooh-lah-lah caliber creme brulee, you need eggs, heavy cream, a Madagascar vanilla bean, a dash of salt and a 14.1-ounce Ace Hardware propane torch.
That last item is what they use at the Redroom Room in Rochester, where the creme brulee is out of this world. It’s the hand-fired, whisper-thin caramelized top on the creamy French dessert that makes it exceptional, and at restaurants such as the Redwood Room, the servers do the torching.
“Everyone has their own way of doing it,” said Sunni Erickson, as she demonstrated her particular method. Sunni, who’s 27 and a Chatfield native now living in Rochester, has worked at the restaurant for five years, so she’s a veteran with the torch. She took a ramekin filled with baked vanilla cream, sprinkled a teaspoon of sugar over it, dusted it off, then held it in one hand while she fired up the torch.
“Some people set it on the counter and torch it, but I like to hold it so I can give it a little more even torching,” she said.
As the sugar melted, it flowed like mercury around the top of the cream and she followed it with the blue flame until it took on a dusky sunset glow and began to smoke. “You do it until it smokes and bubbles just a bit,” she said. They torch the desserts out in the service area where customers can see and smell the sugar being torched, and also “hear the hiss.”
Sunni obviously gets a kick out of it, and it’s that kind of attention and care that puts the Redwood Room into the winner’s circle for this month’s Four Stars recommendations, along with Pescara at the Doubletree Hotel in Rochester, and Nosh restaurant in Lake City.
Creme brulee is the creme de la creme of desserts, and a big part of its charm is the combination of rich vanilla cream with what amounts to a fire-colored crispy cookie on top. It’s an ideal dish to top off any type of meal, it’s not all that filling and it’s easy to share — very important in my house.
It’s amazing how many restaurants offer it — probably too many, because it’s not as easy to make as it looks.
What makes a classic creme brulee?
It’s not pudding with a crust: The essence of creme brulee is its heavenly creaminess — it’s not pudding, and it’s not custard or flan. It should have body but not exactly texture. It’s silky but not runny or saucy. In other words, it hits a mid-point of refinement and delicacy that’s simply and deliciously French.
More specifically, it’s not vanilla pudding: As much as I love vanilla, you can get too much of a good thing in a small dish. The vanilla taste should be discreet, and extra points are offered for fine-grained speckles of vanilla bean in the cream.
Be careful with the torch: It’s a work of art when torched correctly (or alternatively, well-broiled), and when it’s not … well, it’s not appetizing.
My son, who’s a culinary specialist in the Navy, has a great story about firing creme brulees at the Chardonnay restaurant, where he worked under chef-owner Mark Weimer during high school, but you’ll have to catch him at the American Legion club the next time he’s home if you want to hear it.
You can’t improve upon perfection: Variety is the spice of life, and some restaurants make some delicious variations that involve berries, chocolate, espresso and even bleu cheese, as they do at Four Daughters Vineyard near Spring Valley. They’re all worth checking out, but it’s very tough to top a classic.