Besides being California’s state capital, Sacramento is also the domestic caviar capital, with a combination of local producers – both large and small – supplying about 80% of caviar production in the US. Not surprisingly, given their proximity to the producers, Sacramento restaurants are particularly savvy when it comes to sourcing, selling, and serving domestic caviar.
This year many Sacramento restaurants participated in both National Caviar Day and the first Celebrate Caviar Sacramento, a weeklong promotion of domestic caviar to help educate consumers. In anticipation of the holidays, when caviar takes center stage — namely on New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day — we spoke to Sacramento chefs and beverage directors to learn how they recommend sourcing and serving this festive delicacy.
During Celebrate Caviar Sacramento, Chef Jay Veregge, the Director of Culinary Operations for Harvego Restaurant Group, hosted an event at The Firehouse in Old Sacramento with caviar served on canapés and a comparison of caviar from three different local purveyors: Tsar Nicoulai, Passmore Ranch, and Sterling Caviar.
Veregge’s recommends that chefs looking to purchase domestic caviar start by sampling. “Don’t buy from off brands – it’s just repackaged product. Buy it from an actual producer.”
Deneb Williams is the chef and partner at Allora, and like Veregge, he recommends learning as much as you can about caviar before adding it to the menu. “You want to know what the sturgeon’s diet is and the quality of the water,” he says. “Sturgeon are bottom feeders, so if they eat mud your caviar will taste like it.”
In addition to sampling, Williams recommends inspecting the product. “Eggs should be full and round, not deflated – no liquid in jar or tin. It’s salt cured, so when old, it bleeds into the jar. It should smell like the fresh water and no fishy odor.”
When considering introducing caviar, try it as a special to beta test it. The holidays are a perfect time – guests are more inclined to splurge.
A self-described traditionalist, Veregge’s preferred way to serve caviar is with corn blini, sieved hard-boiled egg, washed red onion, and crème fraiche. He suggests pairing caviar with seafood, or with a mild flavor like potatoes: “On smoked salmon or turbot or even Kennebeck potato chips if they are not too salted. Know what you can and cannot do with it.”
He also stresses that it’s important to use it in the appropriate contexts. “You wouldn’t want to put caviar on pizza with red sauce and olive oil. Your platform has to fit. But it doesn’t have to be completely upscale.”
While it may be tempting to add caviar to other luxury ingredients like steak, that can be a mistake, as well as using it with too much heat.
Veregge explains, “It’s so expensive, you should put it where it will be the feature – where the salt of the caviar is an enhancement of the dish. Use it as you would salt on lighter flavors such as scallop, lobster, or any of the white fishes, such as turbot, sole, halibut or haddock with beurre monté.”
For serving, Williams also favors pairing caviar with seafood, especially oysters and cold smoked hamachi crudo. His other suggestions? “Go seasonal with relatively neutral flavors — a lot of vegetables work. I try to not put it on something hot, and I like it to be the star of the show. I would be careful with stronger flavors.” At his restaurant, he showcased caviar in a multi-course brunch.
Can caviar work at a more casual concept? It does at Hook and Ladder Manufacturing Co. Beverage Director Chris Tucker takes a playful approach, adding it to cocktails to complement canapés (think caviar with potato chips, deviled eggs, and smoked salmon). Since there will be economies of scale, he suggests using it for multiple occasions, including happy hour and brunch.
Setting the right price is crucial, too. Williams’ $55 caviar service includes 12 grams: eight grams on an oyster and four with hamachi.
“I want to keep the price down so I can sell it and keep it moving,” says Williams. “We make it approachable. I don’t want to scare people with $150 caviar service.”
Still, that doesn’t mean buying inexpensive product. He says to go for quality: “Make it fit with your restaurant’s brand. Choose your vendors and source your products from people you trust. Getting staff excited depends on being excited yourself. Talk to your staff and feed them information. Get them pumped up about new menu items.”
Elizabeth Rose Mandalou, sommelier and partner at Allora, focuses on Italian wines, which not only fit with Allora’s concept, but also with caviar. Some of her personal favorites are soft still whites, especially wines with round, rich mouthfeel and salinity.
She prefers Vermentino, and some of the softer sparkling wines from Italy, over the riper or oaky styles of Champagne. While overly yeasty styles can work, she notes that too much mousse can take away from the delicacy of caviar.
Another one of her picks is Franciacorta, which she describes as having a purity of fruit and less acidity than Champagne. “A dry Prosecco is very nice, too not bone-dry, but on the drier side.”
Acidity is key, says Mandalou. “Certain caviar needs more acidity than others. More salt needs more freshness; if the caviar is nuttier, I’d downplay it and allow the effervesce to come through.”
In a more casual setting, Tucker pairs bumps of caviar and whisky with a splash of cold, hot, or even saltwater. “Whisky has an affinity with all things from the sea,” he says. “Think of the climate, where it comes from, surrounded by cold water and maritime influence. With age, it softens and calls back to the sea with salinity and slight acidity.”
Caviar Cheat Sheet
- Ask for samples and try before you buy
- Buy direct from producers whenever possible
- Serve with seafood or vegetables
- Avoid exposing caviar to heat
- Make caviar the focal point of your dish
- Look for affordable and casual ways to showcase it
- Beta test it during holidays
- Look for multiple ways to serve it (happy hour, brunch, etc.)
- Experiment with adding caviar to cocktails
- Serve it with delicate Japanese-style whisky
- Try different wines with different caviars, including light sparkling Italian wines