A Taste of the Good Life

By staff April 1, 2005

As a lavish indulgence, caviar sets the standard. Pair it with champagne, and you have a universal symbol of delicious extravagance. Who knew that eggs from a sturgeon swimming in the Caspian Sea and a few bubbles squeezed from grapes could epitomize the quintessential luxe life? But they do; they surely do.

Most connoisseurs consider the finest caviars to be beluga, followed by osetra and sevruga, all from Caspian Sea sturgeon. Lately, however, as environmental and political woes have sent Russian and Iranian caviar prices soaring into the economic stratosphere, gourmands are searching for farm-raised sturgeon and even soy-based imitations. Among the new alternatives are American sturgeon, salmon, lumpfish and golden whitefish, as well as those made from soy products.

Can these soy-based and fish-farm pretenders truly aspire to be scooped up by discriminating diners? To find out, we assembled a small panel of tasters at Fred's restaurant under the direction of executive chef Mario Martinez, who will present a special seminar on caviar at this month's Florida Winefest & Auction.

Here's a quick look at the group. Well-known patrons of the arts, Sarasota's Gil and Elisabeth Waters love to travel the globe. Originally from Vienna, a city known for caviar consumption, Elisabeth has a taste for beluga and sevruga from the Caspian Sea and searches the Internet for the best prices. Gil is an expert on all things Russian, including caviar. But this member of the caviar cognoscenti appreciates the American golden varieties, especially salmon roe.

Brigid Hewes is an interior designer with a zest for culinary adventure. She comes to our tasting with no preconceptions, since she's not a regular caviar eater. Then there's me. As food editor of SARASOTA and Gulfshore Life magazines, I get to dine up and down the coast; but my knowledge about caviar is based more on reading and interviews than extensive tasting. And sommelier Brian Deibol, who has chosen the champagnes to pair with our caviar selections, brings an expert nose and palate to the panel.

Today, chef Martinez is presenting six varieties of the little berries (that's what you call the tiny caviar eggs) in a blind tasting, as the panel members evaluate each as to color, texture, taste and general appearance. In order (we find out later), we're sampling a soy sevruga, a soy osetra, an American golden whitefish, a soy beluga, a genuine sevruga and the true beluga from the Caspian Sea. Each is presented with the traditional condiments: capers, chopped onions, lemon wedges, sour cream and chopped hard-boiled egg yolks. We're drinking three champagnes: a demi-sec, a brut and a brut rose variety. At the end of each round, we give the caviar a letter grade from A to F and rate it in order of personal preference. The big question we'll answer at the end of the session is this: Can the soy impostors or the American fish egg alternatives hold their own and even triumph over their costly cousins, the Caspian Sea beluga and sevruga caviars?

Caviar No. 1 This is soy sevruga (although remember, we don't know that as we taste); and sommelier Deibol finds it slightly fishy and salty, with the gray-greenish berries imparting a fresh and glimmering appearance. "It's nicely balanced by the sweetness of the demi-sec champagne, and I rate it a B-quality caviar," he pronounces. Elisabeth Waters, our most passionate caviar aficionado, also gives the soy sevruga a B and likes both the fishy flavor and a slightly crunchy quality. "You want the taste of the sea in your caviar," she explains, "so a bit of brine or fish taste is what you look for." Her husband, Gil, concurs, judging Caviar No. 1 as "not overwhelming, good tasting and mild."

Caviar No. 2 This is also a soy product, called soy osetra. Chef Martinez says it offers "a burst of flavor on the palate." Hewes finds, however, that the flavor of these berries can't stand up to the condiments. Elisabeth is unimpressed. "Too bland," she pronounces. Deibol likes the dark-black color of the berries.

Caviar No. 3 The third mound of berries to hit our plates is very pretty, indeed; and Martinez tells us this sunny-orange caviar can be frozen and has a gentle flavor, making it a nice garnish for snapper, grouper or yellowtail tuna. Or, he suggests, it could crown eggs Florentine for an elegant brunch dish. Gil immediately recognizes this one as American golden whitefish and says he prefers salmon roe to this version, which he judges mushy and worthy of a grade C. Deibol gives it the same grade, although he likes the way the whitefish berries taste with the chopped egg and the vibrant color. It looks pretty on the plate, and Elisabeth agrees that its appearance is a plus when thinking of party food.

Caviar No. 4 This one is the soy beluga; it gets an A from Deibol, who admires the gray-green color, firm texture and the generous size of the berries. "It has strength and structure; it's definitely my favorite so far, alone or with condiments," he says." Elisabeth is intrigued. "It has nice, charcoal-gray berries and a semi-gloss that gives it good color," she says. "The berries are loose, and there's good balance to the taste."

Designer Hewes appreciates the size of the big berries. "This one is best all by itself; it doesn't need any condiments," she decides. I like the little explosion of taste on the tongue and the rich finish. We all agree we could easily eat more of this one.

Caviar No. 5 This one is a true Caspian Sea sevruga. And even though we're in the dark, we all realize immediately that we are tasting something special. "Oh, this is the one I want to eat in pound portions," exclaims Elisabeth at first bite. Gil notes that is just how his wife enjoys her beluga and sevruga when they travel to Europe. "I buy her a tin at the airport, and she spoons it up right out of the container on the airplane ride home," he says. She retorts, "It's the best way I know to make those long plane rides bearable."

Hewes concurs with Elisabeth, grading No. 5 an A. "The flavors come alive on the tongue, it has a melting texture and a fabulous finish," she says. "This one is for me." I agree; the taste is unique-buttery soft but full on the tongue. It holds up to condiments, but is luscious all by itself.

Caviar No. 6 This is the king of caviars, Caspian Sea sturgeon beluga, the snack food of patricians and potentates. Gil says, "It has strong color, glossy and dark, with well-defined berries; and it's salty in an appealing way. I give it a high B." His wife finds it "very good, soft with the right texture and color" but grants it only a C. She still craves another round of variety No. 5, the genuine sevruga. "I like the black color and silky texture of this one, and the flavor is intense and upfront," says Deibol. "It's quite concentrated. To me it tastes better with sour cream and the blini." And Brigid, the novice caviar eater, thinks the beluga has a lovely melting texture and is full of rich flavor. She likes the big finish on the tongue and grades it an enthusiastic B.

There's no disputing about our taste this afternoon-No. 5, the true sevruga, headed everyone's list. It's the Rolls-Royce of our tasting session, besting even the genuine beluga. Nonetheless, our conclusions bode well for the fakes. The soy sevruga and the soy beluga challenged the authentic roe, both earning As and Bs from most of the judges. The soy sevruga and soy beluga are clearly Bentleys. The soy osetra is nobody's favorite, a dud. And the golden whitefish is prettier than it is tasty. But with two of the soy impostors scoring so high, we realize that almost anyone can afford respectable-tasting caviar for a party or private indulgence. Thanks to these new alternatives, choosing caviar today is about flavor rather than the money.

"Caviar is like wine," says chef Martinez, smiling as he looks at our empty plates. "It's less about what other people say is the best or the finest or the most expensive. It's really about finding what tastes good to you. The great fun, of course, lies in the research." We all give an A-plus to that statement.

Mario's Buttermilk Buckwheat Blinis

(makes two dozen little pancakes to serve caviar on; top with sour cream)

1 3/4 cups buttermilk

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup warm water

1 package dry highly active yeast

1 egg, lightly beaten

2 tablespoons melted butter

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup buckwheat flour

Heat buttermilk in saucepan set over medium heat; mix in sugar and salt and put aside. Pour water into a warm mixing bowl, sprinkle in yeast and stir to dissolve. Mix in the buttermilk mixture, egg and melted butter. Mix the two flours until blended. Slowly add the flour mixture and whisk until smooth. Cover and allow batter to rise in a warm, draft-free area until doubled in size, about 35 minutes.

Preheat griddle over moderate heat. When batter is fully risen, stir down and pour about two tablespoons onto griddle for each blini. Allow plenty of space between the pancakes, then spread each until about two inches across. Cook until bubbles form on the surface and underside is brown. Turn and brown flip side. Hold blinis covered in a warm oven and repeat with remaining batter.

To serve, place a spoonful of caviar in the center of each blini and top with a dollop of sour cream.

Caviar Caveats:

* Eat the highest-grade caviars plain on toast points that have been slightly brushed with unsalted butter. Or present caviar on a half of a small potato or crowning a blini. Accompaniments can be chopped hard-boiled egg, capers, chopped onion, a squeeze of lemon or a dollop of sour cream.

* Fine beluga from the Caspian Sea retails at about $190 for a one-ounce jar. Osetra is about $90, and sevruga about $60 an ounce. But prices fluctuate. American golden whitefish (from Lake Michigan) can be had for about $10 an ounce. Soy Kaviar is packaged in a 4.4-ounce container and sells for $24. (Fred's serves only beluga in the dining room, but Morton's Gourmet Market stocks the Soy Kaviar as well as the real stuff.)

* Avoid silver utensils. Silver reacts with caviar berries and ruins the flavor. Select natural horn, mother-of-pearl or gold implements.

* Best beverages with caviar are champagne or ice-cold vodka. Some gourmands favor hot, unsweetened tea to clear the palate and let the briny flavors of the caviar advance. Elisabeth Waters says that cold milk does the same thing.

* Never freeze genuine fresh caviar. Salmon roe or golden whitefish roe can be frozen.

* Once opened, fresh caviar should be eaten promptly. As if there would be any left over.

To learn more about caviar, you're invited to participate in a Florida Winefest & Auction seminar, at 2 p.m. April 22 at Fred's (in the Florida Room), 1917 S. Osprey Ave. Tickets are $50 per person; call 952-1109.

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