Why Caviar Is Coveted (and Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid of It)

A guide to those prized, pearly fish eggs and the interesting ways L.A. chefs are putting them to good use
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For the uninitiated, caviar can be intimidating. The glistening beads of salt-cured roe are often associated with mother-of-pearl spoons, fancy bottles of champagne, and multiple dollar signs. While caviar can definitely be filed under special-occasion food, it can be much more than that: it’s also a muse for creatively lavish and even homestyle dishes. Los Angeles chefs have been playfully utilizing the prized eggs in their culinary creations, from smearing them across buttery banana pancakes to serving them alongside Thai-spiced chicharrones. Some are even collaborating with producers to exclusively custom-cure their own caviar.

But before we send you off to get a taste of these caviar-showered dishes in L.A., we wanted to dig deeper into what makes these salty fish eggs so special and how to approach them with less trepidation with the help of expert caviar farmer and producer, Michael Passmore of Passmore Ranch.

It doesn’t always need to be fancy

While Passmore, who operates an 86-acre freshwater, sustainable fish ranch right outside of Sacramento, acknowledges that caviar can be a luxury food, he says it doesn’t necessarily have to be. It can be low-key and simple.

“Sure, [caviar’s] fun just like when you’re popping a fine bottle of champagne for a special occasion and you have your finest crystal glasses and flutes, but it doesn’t always have to be a special occasion to drink champagne,” Passmore says. “Same thing goes for a variety of caviars. You don’t have to have your mother-of-pearl spoon out, your blinis, diced onions and traditional accouterments. One of my favorite ways [to eat caviar] is with a bag of chips and cold Budweiser and sitting out on the porch.”

Passmore—whose clientele includes top chefs around the country including French Laundry’s Thomas Keller, and local chefs like Felix’s Evan Funke and Taco María’s Carlos Salgado—likes to think of caviar as a condiment, even for the most unpretentious dishes. Personally, Passmore enjoys his vanilla ice cream kicked up with some of the whiskey roe he makes. His wife Vandy recently baked a pizza from scratch and a friend told him that the only thing missing from it was a dollop of caviar—Passmore wholeheartedly agreed.

Like a fine bottle of wine

There is the perception that caviar is expensive. However, Passmore explains that “expensive” is all relative, and like any bottle of wine, the salted roe can run the gamut from affordable to extravagant. A jar can go as low as $10 to as high as $34,500 for 1 kilogram (2 pounds, 3 ounces) for the world’s most expensive caviar, which comes from the Iranian Beluga fish.

While caviar purists believe that in order to use the term “caviar” the roe must come from sturgeon, Passmore says it’s a misconception and actually “commonly used across the board.” According to FDA guidelines, if salted eggs derive from sturgeon, then it can simply be called “caviar,” but if the eggs come from any other fish, the species must be identified; for example, “salmon caviar.”

Regardless of what fish the roe comes from, there is still a lengthy and laborious process that goes into producing caviar that determines the value and cost of it.

“For folks like us who produce caviar, you’re looking at an immense investment in the farm and the environment to house and rear sturgeon and other fish we’re deriving our caviar from,” Passmore says. “Then it takes years and years for that fish to mature to a point where we can harvest the roe in order to make the caviar.”

Factors that also contribute to the quality of the delicacy involve providing a great environment and diet for the fish and determining what fat and protein content are sufficient enough to create the product. “If you harvested a grape too early, it’s going to be really difficult to make a good wine out of it because the grape is not full-flavored enough to make wine no matter the skill of the maker,” Passmore says.

Then there’s the process of curing and aging the roe until it gets packaged in tin cans and make it to the mouths of the consumers. Passmore says that from the moment they hatch a fish to its finished product, it can take anywhere from ten to 12 years. For Passmore, the curing process can be done in just a day, but he ages his roe for a minimum of three to four months, and because of high demand, he hasn’t had the chance to age it for more than a year so far.

Tips for the beginner

Passmore says it’s hard to suggest a particular type of caviar to a newbie to try because each person has a different palate, just like how someone might enjoy a buttery Chardonnay rather than a crisp Pinot Grigio. Some of the flavor notes of cured roe include nutty, briny, buttery and creamy. And on the color spectrum, they can shimmer from a light gold to a dark ebony. One isn’t particularly better than the other; it’s just a matter of preference.

“Among my chef clientele, they enjoy a wide variety,” he says. “Some like a more firm structure, some like it to burst with the lightest bit of pressure.”

However, Passmore does believe that generally if the individual beads aren’t too wet, it’s an indication that it’s a good caviar. There really shouldn’t be a strong odor either, he says.

For first timers, Passmore suggests trying a caviar flight and sampling three to five different kinds. Get a range, from sturgeon caviar to roe from other fish that have been cured with unique flavors. That way, you can determine your own preferences for caviar flavors, whether you like something with more or less salinity, or a younger or more mature egg. Passmore says to try a little spoonful of the roe so you can taste it by itself, and then pair it with some food, which can be something as simple as a chip.

Another thing he thinks is important is the temperature of the caviar when it’s served. In his opinion, people eat the roe way too cold. While it does need to be stored quite cool, he likes to toss it in his red wine cooler to get it to his preferred temperature of 55 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. “The flavors start coming out,” Passmore says. “You’re not tasting the cold then. Much is the same is with a red wine. There are very few that I enjoy more chilled. Oftentimes, I want it come to temperature so I can let those flavors blossom.”

Passmore, who has a caviar club open to the public to sample the different kinds of roe he produces, says that at any tasting event he attends, there’s always one person who tells him they don’t like caviar. “What I usually determine is that when they think they don’t like caviar, what they really don’t like is bad caviar,” he says. “And then they get to experience something better, and they find it awakens them.”

Where to get the goods…

Atrium

When Atrium chef and partner Hunter Pritchett dreamt up his version of chicken and waffles, he says he wanted something to “push the flavor to its apex.” Caviar was the answer.

“Fried chicken and caviar is a perfect pairing,” Pritchett says. “The heat of the just-fried chicken gently warms the caviar and enhances its flavor. The salty, buttery brininess goes hand in hand with our lemon- and thyme-scented brined chicken. When you think about it, we are using caviar here as a hyper-elevated finishing salt. It really just does make everything better.”

For the dish itself, the fried chicken oysters are brined with Japanese koji and the waffles made with heirloom corn. Smoked maple syrup is drizzled across the dish, and then dotted with a crema made with sake kasu. “Kasu is the sediment left over from the sake-making process. It’s an alcoholic rice paste that is still inoculated with koji, that packs an umami-laden punch and sort of tastes like a very interesting triple-cream cheese,” Pritchett says.

As for the caviar, Pritchett procured it from his friends at Island Creek Oysters, who source it from Sterling Caviar Farms in Northern California. “Our caviar comes from royal white sturgeon, and is incredibly rich, cheesy, inky, with slight notes of aged prosciutto and really good butter,” he says. “We are essentially offering caviar service on some chicken and waffles, but really believe in the product and think it makes it so much better.”

1816 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz

Nightshade

Nightshade chef and co-owner (and Top Chef season 12 winner) Mei Lin was inspired by the classic combo of chips and dip when she created her tom yum chicharron platter paired with french onion dip and custom-cured caviar.

While Lin’s chicharron is already a unique item that’s punctuated with the Southeast Asian flavors of lemongrass, lime leaf, and tamarind, it’s her caviar that especially stands out. It’s one that she made through a collaboration with Tsar Nicoulai Caviar. “We make the custom caviar with different sourced salts from around the world, starting with a cure with Persian blue salt [and] then Japanese kombu salt,” Lin says.

923 E. 3rd St. #109, Arts District

Osteria Cal Mare

“If you’ve never had caviar or have eaten caviar your entire life, this single bite will change everything you thought you wanted from it,” Osteria Cal Mare chef and partner Adam Fox says.

While caviar is the main star here, Fox gives a nod to one of the most traditional ways to eat it, which is with a blini with crème fraîche, and takes it to the next level. “In its simplest form it works because of the sweet dough, rich dollop of cream and salty roe. At Osteria Cal Mare, I take the traditional Russian caviar service and wave an Italian flag over it,” he says.

Presentation is key: Fox’s version comes out in an impressive three-tiered tower. It’s a build-your-own canapé station stacked with the pillowy Italian donut, zeppole, that’s drizzled with elderflower honey; prosciutto di Parma; two kinds of roe—smoked trout roe and Kaluga caviar; and condiments like chopped egg yolks, caramelized onions, and fresh chives.

“Every single bite is enjoyable no matter what the combination,” Fox says. “My idea of portion control is not so much how much you eat, but the ratio in which you assemble the perfect bite. Just make sure you get a little bit of everything, but obviously the more caviar the better.”

Beverly Center, 8500 Beverly Blvd., Ste. 115, Beverly Grove

Angler

Angler chef Joshua Skenes has a penchant for panache when it comes to dish presentation at his restaurant. After all, when you order the radicchio with radicchio X.O. sauce, you get a cloth bib affixed with a balled chain necklace and an ornate knife as part of the whole package. The same care goes into his caviar and banana pancakes, which is assembled tableside.

A waiter rolls out a cart with all the fixins and slathers butter made with barbecued banana peels onto a small banana pancake. Then, the custom barbecued salt-cured caviar that comes from white Sturgeon in Northern California, is unwrapped from its banana leaves packaging that was warmed over a fire, and is spread across the top of the pancake. You fold it like a taco and eat it up, and use a mother-of-pearl spoon to scoop up any excess that falls.

8500 Beverly Blvd., Suite 117, Beverly Grove

Birdie G’s

Jim Sullivan

Birdie G’s “Passmore Ranch Caviar Platter” is an homage to chef and co-owner Jeremy Fox’s Sunday family routine growing up. Fox remembers how his grandmother would drive 15 minutes to New Jersey to get warm bagels. When she returned home, they would pile on the cream cheese, lox, nova, smoked whitefish, tomatoes, red onions and cucumber.

“And it was all set up as a DIY situation, just as our caviar platter is,” he says. “You take a warm potato waffle, top it with a dollop of crème fraîche so everything is anchored, then a spoonful of roe, then pickled red onion, then capers, then chives, then finally some ‘everything’ benne seed mix on top. Then try not to drop it like a schmuck.”

As the name suggests, the Passmore Ranch Caviar is the star of the dish. Fox is proud of the custom-cured steelhead trout caviar he collaborated with Passmore on making exclusively for his restaurant. The roe is harvested while the fish are spawning, so there’s a no-kill process.

“The flavors Michael [Passmore] incorporates are designed to complement the flavors of our platter,” Fox says. “The crème fraîche is cultured in-house. The potato waffles are simply cooked potato, grated and mixed with clarified butter, and griddled in a waffle iron.”

2421 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica

Providence

Since Providence chef and co-owner Michael Cimarusti is all about high-quality, sustainable seafood, it only makes sense that the caviar he uses would be of the same ilk. His Ossetra caviar hails from a farm-raised, sustainable sturgeon that is harvested in Bulgaria and comes by way of Regalis Foods in New York.

The decadent dish he serves is a combination of geoduck, caviar and Dungeness crab. “This is a dish that has been on the menu for a while,” Cimarusti says. “It has evolved several times since it’s been part of the menu. The initial inspiration was to showcase geoduck and caviar together. Turns out the unique flavor of celtuce is a perfect match for both caviar and geoduck.”

He adds that while oysters are not visibly present in the presentation of dish, its flavor is packed into it. “For each small batch of nage that we make, there are about two dozen oysters and their liquor added,” Cimarusti says. “The oyster brings a depth of flavor to the nage that wouldn’t be there without them.”

5955 Melrose Ave., Hollywood


RELATED: At Birdie G’s in Santa Monica, Even the Kids’ Menu Has Fine-Dining Cred


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