Caviar was once so plentiful in America that bars gave the stuff away to stoke patrons’ thirst, until overfishing brought sturgeon to the brink of extinction and returned its roe to luxury status. But thanks in part to advances in aquaculture, the favorite delicacy of czars and shahs is popping up on new menus around town—and shedding some of its stuffy rep.
“People have a perception that caviar is unapproachable and expensive, so they don’t try it,” says Saltie Girl executive chef Kyle McClelland, who previously honed his roe know-how at New York’s Caviar Russe. “That’s one of the reasons we offer caviar by the quarter- and half-ounce. We want to give guests an entry point and make it part of the regular dining experience.” Diners at the Back Bay boite can add a dollop to any dish, order a traditional one-ounce Russian caviar service or try it in plates like the Eggs & Eggs (where it’s paired with free-range scrambled eggs) and the Caviar Dip & Chips (where it tops Kendall Farms’ crème fraîche mixed with chives, scallions, shallots, lemon juice and seasoned rice wine vinegar).
Meanwhile, at Waypoint in Cambridge, chef/owner Michael Scelfo’s caviar service comes with buttermilk crema, croissant donut holes and blini made with plankton and heirloom white corn from Anson Mills. “It’s a nice balance of new-school technique and old-school ideas,” says Scelfo, who likes to wash caviar down with absinthe. (Beverage director Seth Freidus has also prepared a lineup of “Top Roe Spirits,” like Cold River vodka infused with capers and pickled roe.)
Of course, when it comes to pairing, you can’t go wrong with a glass of Champagne. “We offer the Pol Roger Réserve, which works great with the salty treat,” suggests Justin Shoults, executive chef at Fort Point’s Oak + Rowan, where you can order caviar (pictured at top) as a single tasting, a half-ounce serving on a Portuguese “English muffin” or a flight of four varieties: wild-caught hackleback from Illinois, Snake River white sturgeon from Idaho, Siberian sturgeon from a Florida farm and Shoults’ personal favorite, Royal Belgian Osetra from Dr. Willy Verdonck’s high-tech indoor farm.
Downtown wine bar haley.henry is likewise serving Royal Belgian and Snake River caviar. “They are famous for their crystal-clear spring water,” general manager Kristie Weiss says of the latter. Those two offerings and roe from Tennessee paddlefish (a cousin of the sturgeon) are available by the spoon or as a “fleet” of three. But as for her preferred plating? “My favorite way to enjoy caviar is with an original Lay’s potato chip and with good company!”
Those schmancy caviar spoons made from mother-of-pearl aren’t only for show, as metal may taint the taste. But plastic spoons work too—or you could always eat it right out of your hand. Really: There’s a long tradition of placing caviar on the back of your hand between your thumb and your index finger. “Eating caviar off your hand started because most people wanted to try the product before buying it,” says Row 34 chef/co-owner Jeremy Sewall. “It was spooned onto the hand because no one wanted to share spoons for sanitary reasons, and this is long before disposable stuff.” The tradition continues at Row 34, where guests on New Year’s Eve gather around the bar, eating caviar off their fists; later this month, the restaurant will once again offer caviar and Krug Grand Cuvée Champagne at cost for the night. “We really wanted to do something celebratory for New Year’s Eve that was a bit over the top but still in our wheelhouse,” says Sewall, who still remembers the first time he enjoyed caviar by hand, back in the ’90s at an event celebrating famed French chef Paul Bocuse. “While speeches were happening, Chef Bocuse found his way to the caviar display and started eating and spooning caviar onto the back of people’s hands,” Sewall recalls. “I don’t know what was better: the caviar or that it was being spooned onto my hand by Paul Bocuse.”