The world of dining and drinking is an obstacle course wrapped in a labyrinth wrapped in a logic puzzle — it’s full of pitfalls, gray areas, and bewildering questions that really shouldn’t even be questions (How do I find the bathroom?) and yet, somehow, are. Fortunately, your friends at Eater are here to help: Life Coach is a series of simple guides to the arcane rituals of modern dining. Have a question or a quandary you’d like us to tackle? Drop Life Coach a line.
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 chilean sea bass 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.