If ever there were a dessert that could confidently be called "in" this year in Washington, it is creme brulee. More than a half-dozen French restaurants feature the burned-cream custard on their menus. "There is more cr brul,ee served in Washington's restaurants than all of France," says Guy de la Chevalerie, press attach,e of the French Embassy. But meanwhile, back in Paris, chef Joel Robuchon at Jamin, the hottest restaurant in Paris, has a two-month waiting list of eager diners. And his favorite dessert? Cr

The hallowed cookbook Larousse Gastronomique mentions not a word about the dessert. It seems that cr French at all.

English cookbook writer Jane Grigson, who considers the burned-cream dessert "the best of all English puddings," dates it to the 18th century when puddings were very popular. She feels that the French name probably came into being when in the 18th and 19th centuries French chefs came to England to work and there was frequent cultural and gastronomic exchange between the two countries.

Cro vogue in Washington at the Kennedy White House where it was served frequently by the first lady. But for 10 years afterward, the dessert experienced somewhat of a setback.

In 1974, Michel Setteur, now chef-owner of Georgetown Seafood (then called Caf,e de Paris), learned to make cr from a Haitian. "In Haiti they tried to make the cr we have in France. They made a cream pudding and then used a blow torch to cook the raw sugar on top. Haitians created cr brul,ee," he asserts.

Setteur taught the dish to his first wife, who serves it in her restaurant on the C.ote d'Azur. Closer to home, a handful of chefs followed Setteur's recipe, including Gaby Aubuoin at La Brasserie, who taught it to Jean-Louis at the Watergate.

Jean-Louis' pastry chef, Richard Chirol, who made the dessert in Los Angeles at L'Oran- gerie, insists that the dish is Spanish, not Haitian or English. "It is just a different version of the Spanish flan."

Although most Americans agree that cr Maedda Haetter in her Cookbook of Great Desserts places its origin in New Orleans. But few New Orleans cookbooks even mention it.

Whatever its origins, cr brul,ee has gone a long way from the original recipes in which cream and cinnamon were boiled, then poured slowly into egg yolks, sweetened and cooled before being strewn with white pounded sugar and browned under the broiler. In some restaurants today it is served cold like a flan. But in the more avant garde restaurants, slightly acidic fruits such as raspberries or oranges are included in the custard, and the chefs apply Setteur's blow torch over the raw sugar.

It is clear the cr -- but from where? And for how long? Remember the kiwi.