There's caviar, and cavi-aren'ts

Long before the caviar crisis became official with a United Nations ban on beluga sturgeon eggs in 2006, the billionaire knew something was up.

Cable mogul Ralph Roberts noticed a problem four years ago with his regular order of scrambled eggs and caviar at the Happy Rooster in Center City, and registered a gripe with owner Rose Parrotta.

"It looks like you're giving me less caviar!" Roberts complained.

"Well, it looks like my Comcast bill is going up, too!" shot back the ever-sassy Parrotta.

At least they were haggling over genuine Russian sevruga, though its cost had already begun a perilous climb. Prices have since shot so high on any remaining wild Caspian caviar - increasingly rare sevruga and osetra are now fetching from $120 to $195 an ounce, and most of it is either Iranian or smuggled - that Parrotta took it off her menu three months ago.

It was a blow to the legacy of the Happy Rooster, which under previous owner "Doc" Ulitsky was known as one of Center City's go-to haunts for Petrossian luxury. So like the rest of the caviar-loving world, Parrotta is investigating the alternatives. That includes domestic roe from other species of fish (Roberts' scrambled eggs, she said, now get heaping portions of that), synthetic caviars made from soy, and the increasingly impressive caviar from farm-raised sturgeon.

Aquacultured sturgeon caviar is gaining international acceptance due to its sustainability, and is being raised from Uruguay to Israel, with varying degrees of success. American innovator Sterling, one of the two major sturgeon farms in California, has seen its sales increase from half a ton in 2000 to an expected eight to 10 tons this year, according to general manager Peter Struffenegger.

But can these new-age caviars deliver the delicately salty pop and complex flavors of the wild roes of yore?

An Inquirer tasting panel of myself, food writer Rick Nichols, and former Inquirer Moscow correspondent Inga Saffron, whose book Caviar (Broadway Books, 2002) detailed the history and modern dilemma of the regal fish, set out to determine just that. We tasted four farm-raised sturgeon caviars, as well as two non-sturgeon alternatives, and the results were decidedly mixed.

The focus was on the caviars from white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus), a Pacific species native to America's northwest coast that has been successfully raised in freshwater farms near Sacramento, Calif., as well as in other parts of the world.

The taste of white sturgeon eggs is often likened to the nutty, mineral flavor of osetra, and our samples legitimately bore that out. But farm-raised caviar often struggles to replicate the snappy pop of wild fish roe.

This was true even with the best caviar of our tasting, a California estate grade osetra from Tsar Nicoulai ($64.99 for 1 ounce at Whole Foods Markets), whose inky black beads had what Saffron described as a "very nice, soft, sea-breeze flavor."

Caviar Assouline repackages Tsar Nicoulai under its own label for about $5 less per ounce, and our Assouline jar was nearly identical to the Nicoulai-labeled caviar. It was, however, subtly milder and more buttery - an inviting roe for beginners, but slightly less appealing for aficionados seeking a confident salty edge.

The olive-colored classic caviar from Sterling ($62 an ounce online, plus $34.46 for overnight shipping) had the best mouthfeel of all ("nice independent beads with a taut casing," Saffron said). But the flavor was faint compared with the decadent richness of Tsar Nicoulai, with an herbal tinge that reminded me of algae.

Still, all the Californians were far superior to the 1-ounce tin of Italian white sturgeon labeled Casanova Caviar de Venise, purchased at Wegman's in Cherry Hill for $69.99. (Wegman's also sells Californian and Caspian caviar.)

"I haven't had such bad caviar - maybe ever," grumbled Saffron, who noted a fizz and an acrid, metallic saltiness in the soupy liquid and mushy beads that indicated it had begun to ferment.

"It almost tastes like - like fish eggs," Nichols pooh-poohed.

"Now that's going too far," Saffron said.

So we turned to caviar made from soy called Faux-Luga that Caviar Assouline sells for $15 a 2-ounce jar.

"I'd say that's a good salty snack - like Fritos," Nichols quipped, after downing a spoonful of the charcoal-gray soy beads, which weren't as unctuous as real caviar, but had a distinct crunch. "I could see serving that at a party."

"It's amazing for what it is. It's actually not bad," conceded Saffron, who suggested that Faux-Luga's heat-resistant quality would make it a good ingredient for cooking. "But it is disappointing in flavor, because it has no real sea taste. If you had a crowd and it was masked by a bath of warm creme fraiche and great blinis, you know, it's an option."

As the tasting neared its finale, Nichols eagerly opened a Caviar Assouline jar of his perennial personal favorite: salmon roe. ("I've got a little bit of a salmon thing," he admitted.)

The orange beads were big and jewellike, and they popped on the tongue like bursts of liquid lox. Beside the smaller, moodier sturgeon roe, this was, in many ways, comparing apples to oranges. Salmon is essentially a separate food group. And yet, the sensation of eating them recalled an elusive vibrance that many of the alternative sturgeons still covet.

"It has a definite fishiness, but not a bad fishiness, and a big-bead poppiness," Nichols raved. "I like it. It tastes like it is descended from a fish. This - this is my favorite!"

For the price - $2.50 an ounce - the Happy Rooster could give the billionaire all the caviar and eggs he can eat. Now about that Comcast bill. . . .


Proper platform for the regal roe

Unless you're lucky enough to eat caviar by the spoonful, that great roe will need some good blini pancakes.

Acceptable premade versions of those silver-dollar-size rounds (which also are sometimes made in the larger crepe style) can be found, made of either white flour or earthy, brownish buckwheat. Wegman's sells a package of sturdy white-flour blini ($12.99 for 30), and Caviar Assouline sells a 24-pack of notably buttery buckwheat blini for $7.50.

But there is nothing better than making them fresh. This recipe for white-flour blini is passed on from Inga Saffron, who learned it during her tenure as The Inquirer's Moscow correspondent. She got it from her daughter's nanny, Sasha Shremetova, who got it from her mother, Nina Shremetova, who was nanny to the children of four previous Inquirer Moscow correspondents.

The Inquirer no longer maintains a Moscow bureau, so the future of this blini recipe is now in your pans.

- Craig LaBan
A 2-ounce jar of Faux-Luga costs $15, and salmon roe costs $2.50 an ounce at Caviar Assouline.

Sterling classic caviar is available online for $62 an ounce (plus $34.46 overnight shipping) at www.sterlingcaviar.com, 1-800-525-0333.


Sasha's Blini

Makes 20 paper-thin 6-inch blini (or about 60 1-inch blini)

2 cups milk

3 eggs

1 cup flour, sifted

Pinch salt

1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons melted

butter for batter, plus 1

tablespoon butter for

greasing pan, as needed. (Oil can be substituted for the pan.)

1. Separate eggs and set aside the whites. Mix the yolks and milk. Add flour, salt and sugar.

2. Melt butter in a pan (a seasoned steel crepe pan works best; nonstick is not recommended). Cool butter a bit, then add to batter.

3. Beat egg whites and fold into batter until it

reaches the consistency of heavy cream.

4. Heat pan initially over high heat; once hot, turn to medium-low. Coat surface with a sheen of butter, as needed. Use the minimum amount of batter to just cover the pan because, if making large blini (as Inga does), they should be very thin. Gently tilt the pan to spread the batter as it sets.

5. Flip when blini begin to turn brown on the edges. Cook briefly, then place on a warm plate covered with a clean dish towel. They can also be kept warm in a low-heat oven. At this point, they can also be cooled and kept in a refrigerator for up to three days, then microwaved briefly for serving.

Per serving (based on 20): 66 calories, 2 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 3 grams fat, 39 milligrams cholesterol, 44 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.


Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan can be contacted at claban@phillynews.com.