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No one, not even billionaires, eat at Per Se all the time. Nine rich courses is too much for everyday eating. Nor does anyone feast at Noma every day that it’s open. Reservations are too tough to come by, and no one wants to dine for four hours more than once a year. But if I had a few extra quid lying around, I’d eat caviar morning, noon, and night. It is my fig on a plate, a dish that reveals more about where it came from and how it was processed rather than what a chef did with it. It is one of the world’s most perfect foods.
Caviar comes from the lightly salted, unfertilized eggs of the sturgeon, a prehistoric fish that swam the waters of our earth while the dinosaurs still roamed. The critically endangered beluga, the largest sturgeon, can live for more than 100 years, and its roe tastes of oil, brine, and money.
Once a staple of lavish parties in Tsarist Russia and pre-revolutionary Iran, caviar is now mostly farmed. Wild stocks of Caspian Sea beluga, sevruga, and osetra sturgeon plummeted after the fall of the Soviet Union; the state’s monopoly on fishing disintegrated and the sturgeon catch became a veritable free-for-all. By 2005, the U.S. had banned the import of beluga, and even countries bordering the Caspian like Iran and Russia are now farming much of their caviar.
Iranian caviar is tough to get in the U.S. thanks to trade sanctions, but these days caviar can also be had from Uruguay, Israel, China, Germany, France, as well as the United States, with prominent aquaculture farms in California, North Carolina, and Florida. The largest wild sturgeon can take as long as 25 years to start producing eggs, and harvesting said eggs differs from, say, hen egg production. Put more bluntly, the fish must be dispatched with (no-kill caviar is still a work in progress).
Translation: This stuff is expensive; a pound of the best caviar can easily cost more than a midsize car. Restaurants can easily charge $200 or more for a single serving. Whether you’re having it at a fine dining establishment or at home, here are 10 things you need to know about eating caviar to best enjoy it without going totally broke.
1. Expect to spend a lot of money.
Retail, entry-level sturgeon roe won’t cost less than $65 to $85 per 30 grams (just over one ounce), with some of the really good stuff starting at around $150 or more. Caviar service rarely costs less than $100 in a restaurant. Le Bernardin asks $220 for an ounce of osetra a la carte, while Daniel charges nearly $400 for 50 grams.
2. Consider eating your caviar at home.
Let’s be frank; restaurants don’t do much to improve caviar. They buy it, open up the tin, and spoon it into a serving vessel alongside some blini and creme fraiche. The most complicated part is how much to mark it up (cha-ching!).
Most of the good roe you try in restaurants is purchased from Petrossian, Caviar Russe, Paramount, or other suppliers that also sell their diverse wares at retail counters, where individual customers pay neither tax (caviar is exempt in New York City) nor tip. Think of it this way: Would you rather shell out $200 to eat caviar at a fancy restaurant, or buy the same product from Petrossian for $150? Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat roe out on the town; sometimes it’s nice to celebrate a night out.
3. Remember: Expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better.
The absolute worst thing you can do when ordering caviar is to pick the most expensive roe for no other reason than it being the spendiest. Just as a 1954 Petrus isn’t necessarily better than a fresh and sprightly German Riesling, a $500 tin of kaluga won’t automatically make you happier than a little $10 jar of trout roe. Approach caviar like you would wine — not by price, but by style.
It’s not about finding the “best” caviar; it’s about finding what you like. If you’re a Blue Point oyster lover who wants intense brine and sometimes metallic flavors, a good white sturgeon roe from California might be for you. If you want sometime milder, a golden osetra might be more your speed. (In fact, I’ve found that some of the most expensive roes are so clean and neutral-tasting, it’s almost hard to tell that you’re eating caviar at all.) Tell the waiter or manager whether you prefer something buttery, nutty, or briny.
4. Consider texture.
If pop is really what you want, there’s no better place to find it than with “red” caviar. Trout roe, which you’ll find as frequently as avocado toast in most any American restaurant, packs almost as much firmness as bubble wrap, with subtle salts and oil. And then there’s salmon roe, which is softer and more delicate but also larger, which means an extra strong dose of fishy oil.
But think outside of “pop” as the chief criteria for good black caviar. Connoisseurs don’t always look for the smoothest tequila or the tenderest steak. They realize some of the more complex spirits happen to have a bit more burn (sometimes). They realize that sometimes a strip is nice for its heft and chew, and sometimes a filet hits the spot for its mouthfeel and its ability to pair with sauces. Just the same, sevruga or baerii aren’t typically as firm as its gueldenstaedtii or kaluga counterparts, but that doesn’t mean they’re not packed with more rich, delicious flavor than cheaper, firmer roes (or even more expensive ones).
5. Know how many g’s to order.
If you’re at a tasting menu venue, your caviar course will likely consist of 10 to 15 grams of roe. That works out to a few bites, which is about as much as you’ll need over the course of a long meal. If you’re ordering a la carte, most establishments sell their roe starting at 30 grams, which should provide at least five small bites of caviar per two people, perhaps more. Think very carefully about ordering any less, as a lighter portion means you won’t get a chance to really get to the know the eggs and discover how the flavors change as they warm up. And if you have the cash, 50 grams is really the perfect order for two.
6. Don’t get too worked up over the accessories.
Much of the caviar sold in stores and online come in a fancy little gift sets with mother-of-pearl spoons, leading you to believe that fancy utensil is a prerequisite for consumption. Indeed, silver can cause a reaction with caviar, imparting the roe with a metallic taste. But most silver-toned spoons are stainless steel, and don’t contain any actual silver, meaning you can use whatever you want. However, there is a benefit to using mother-of-pearl: It’s small and thin, allowing the diner to deftly separate the roe without popping it. It’s also exceedingly light, and the less you notice the weight of the spoon, the more you can focus on the taste of the caviar. Ask your waiter for a pearl spoon if available, but if you’re at home, even a crummy little plastic spoon, the kind they give away ice cream samples with, will work just fine.
7. Don’t get hoodwinked.
I once had an honest waiter at a four-star restaurant tell me I was eating caviar from Russia when I knew it was from anywhere but. Most waiters and chefs know little about the caviar they’re serving; this is partly due to the fact that caviar purveyors invent fake names so when you Google them, only one brand comes up. For example, Petrossian calls most of its high-end roes “tsar imperial,” which really means nothing.
If you want to know precisely what type of caviar you’re getting, learn the Latin names (see sidebar), and talk to your server about it. If they can’t answer, ask to see the tin. If they can’t provide a tin, don’t order the caviar.
8. Eat your caviar while it’s at optimal freshness.
Caviar can theoretically last in the fridge for up to a month, but that’s only if it’s stored at the proper temperature, roughly 28 to 34 degrees. Problem is, most regular refrigerators don’t get that cold; the appropriate work around is to keep the caviar tin in a pouch surrounded by gel ice packs (typically supplied by the store at no extra cost). Those who omit this step will find their fish roe bleeding oil like ink from a leaky pen. Ideally, you should just consume the entire tin shortly after opening.
9. And serve it at the proper temperature.
Caviar is best stored at a low temps, but that’s not the optimal temperature for enjoying this delicacy. Chilling numbs the flavor. So if the restaurant serves the roe on ice, maybe take it off and appreciate how the oils become richer and more flavorful as they start to warm up. If you want to expedite that process, try putting a dollop on a warm blini. If you’re eating the roe at home, 10 minutes outside of the fridge should be about right before serving.
10. Eat the caviar however you like, but definitely try some by itself!
Would you slather cocktail sauce all over an oyster? Probably not. Then easy does it with the creme fraiche on your caviar — at least at first. Before you start messing around with pairings too much, you’ll want to learn to appreciate and understand the subtleties of the roe on their own. So even if a chef sends out a composed caviar course — say, a dollop of caviar on a small potato or tater tot — and advises to eat it in one bite, feel free to ignore those instructions and enjoy a few beads by themselves.
After that, anything goes. When you’re spending this much money on anything, you should feel comfortable eating it however you like. Consider something neutral and warm to heat up the roe — perhaps soft scrambled eggs, blini, or buttered white toast. Or if you’re just going for salty scoopage at room temperature, potato chips will do just fine!
Ryan Sutton is the chief critic of Eater NY.
Editor: Whitney Filloon