Guess What's Coming to Dinner

American caviar has finally won a spot on the table. A tasting reveals how years of fine-tuning (and a ban on imports) has convinced the most discerning palates.

When some people talk about the current strain in Russian–U.S. relations, they’re referring to caviar. In 2005 the United States imposed a trade ban on beluga sturgeon from the Caspian and Black seas, a serious blow considering that 60 percent of beluga—the most coveted of caviars—had been consumed here in the United States. It’s hoped that the restriction will help replenish the beluga population, which has decreased 90 percent in the last two decades. This precipitous decline was hastened by the breakup of the Soviet Union, which strictly controlled harvesting. Now the black market in caviar is booming, complete with poaching, illegal labeling, stratospheric prices, and zero quality control. (That $200 tin on your table might have spent 20 unrefrigerated hours on a flight from Azerbaijan.)

Suddenly American caviar, once summarily dismissed by connoisseurs, is looking pretty tasty. Only the eggs of sturgeon can be labeled caviar, so in the early eighties forward-thinking entrepreneurs in California and the South began harvesting sturgeon—both wild and farmed—native to the States. There are 28 surviving species of the prehistoric fish, which live in both fresh-and salt water. These include Acipenser transmontanus (white sturgeon indigenous to the Sacramento and other Pacific Coast rivers, whose roe is most comparable to osetra), hackleback (wild sturgeon from the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers, sometimes likened to sevruga), and paddlefish (a wild sturgeon cousin from the Mississippi River).

The comparisons to California wine are apt: Snobs scoffed at first, but U.S. caviar has gotten better and more sophisticated every year, especially as the stock of white sturgeon—the only species currently raised in captivity—has matured. In the wild they can live to 100 years and weigh up to a ton. Most farmed sturgeon are harvested at eight years; wild ones don’t reach reproductive maturity until 15, making this an industry with a serious time lag between demand and supply.

Russian and Iranian purveyors have had centuries of practice harvesting and preserving the eggs. Caviar is also being raised in France (most notably by Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent’s former business partner), Uruguay, Spain, and the Czech Republic, with the best, most consistent quality coming from Italy. In the States the process is still being refined. One hurdle has been that the FDA forbids the use of borax, a chemical used in Russia, Iran, and China to extend shelf life. California-based producers Sterling Caviar and Tsar Nicoulai have both been working with scientists at U.C. Davis to find alternatives. "One of the biggest challenges is curing the roe," explains Rod Mitchell, co-owner of Browne Trading Company, a high-end seafood wholesaler in Portland, Maine. "It’s a fine line between too mushy and too salty. And with freshwater fish such as the hackleback and paddlefish, there are a lot of problems getting rid of the muddy flavor."

Within a decade, though, caviar made in the U.S.A. could give beluga a run for its money. Domestic caviar is now served by haute restaurateurs like Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Emeril Lagasse, and Daniel Boulud (who even has his own private label of spoonbill caviar). At Esca in Manhattan, chef David Pasternack offers Browne Trading Company spoonbill caviar alongside fresh burrata or spoons it over mackerel crudo. "The salty nuttiness of the eggs is perfect for cutting the fish’s creamy richness," he says. And while Pasternack doesn’t claim that local products are on par with Russia’s, Iran’s, or even farmed caviar from Italy, he maintains that "domestic spoonbill is reasonable."

Seven years ago Armen Petrossian, the president of Petrossian Caviar, saw the rapidly dimming future of caviar and began to work with California’s Stolt Sea Farms (now Sterling Caviar) to produce roe deserving of his prestigious Paris-based label. These days, when he hosts tastings of his U.S. sturgeon and selections from other countries, he says, "most are surprised." Like Pasternack, he is careful not to make direct comparisons. "Sturgeon is very complicated," he says. "It’s like having a painter’s palette and trying to explain the tonality." One obvious point is that wild and farmed are markedly different, but in the end, says Petrossian, it’s the species—not the place of origin—that matters most. (Which is exactly why Mark Zaslavsky, the intrepid co-owner of Sturgeon AquaFarms in Pierson, Florida, frequently travels from Caspian Basin countries like Russia with beluga, sevruga, and osetra sturgeon in the hopes of producing the first farm-raised U.S. caviar from these species. He aims to sell his initial harvest this December.) The quality of grading, processing, packing, and shipment is also very important. "We could never make good caviar from bad," Petrossian says, "but we can make exceptional caviar from good caviar."

And so, spoon in hand, I set off in search of the exceptional. Here’s what I found.

** Bemka This Fort Lauderdale, Florida, importer got into the domestic game in 1997. Its gunmetal-gray wild paddlefish caviar ($15 an ounce) from the Mississippi River (paddlefish are also called spoonbill thanks to their upturned snouts) is light and oyster-scented, with a bright, salty flavor that rolls into a nutty finish. The small reddish-brown bowfin caviar ($5 an ounce) had a pleasantly briny walnut flavor. The black beads of hackleback wild from the Missouri River ($15 an ounce) were aggressive, in need of blini and crème fraîche. 877-462-0533;

**Browne Trading Company As the seafood wholesaler to the country’s best chefs, this wharfside company in Portland, Maine, takes its caviar seriously. The wild spoonbill caviar ($20 an ounce), with its small, distinct beads, was too metallic in the end—but, says co-owner Rod Mitchell, consistency is not the strong point of domestic caviar ("I like Italian white sturgeon better," he admitted). Browne’s Daniel Boulud Private Stock Spoonbill Caviar ($30 an ounce), however, harvested from Kentucky Lake in western Tennessee for its texture, taste, and color, had a great mouthfeel and ocean-fresh—make that lake-fresh—flavor. 800-944-7848;

***Kelley’ s Katch Located in Tennessee, this company has been harvesting the pearl-gray roe of local paddlefish ($24 for two ounces) for 20 years. It’s delicately salted but lacks pop. At $191 for a one-pound tin, it’s a great value for holiday parties. The hackleback sturgeon roe ($24 for two ounces) is mild, firm, and rounder in the mouth, if a tad on the salty side. Good for those who don’t like their caviar too fishy. 888-681-8565;

** Paramount Caviar This New York company specializes in hackleback caviar ($37 for two ounces) from Mississippi and Missouri river sturgeon. The most common sturgeon in North America, it grows to only three feet long and is sometimes called the shovelnose, sand, or shoe sturgeon. Its flavor, however, is anything but common: firm, rich, and dark, if slightly metallic at the end. 800-992-2842;

***** Petrossian The luxe Parisian emporium believes its California sturgeon is worthy of sharing page space with the pricey imported stuff (while 2005 supplies last) in its current catalogue. The Tsar Imperial Transmontanus ($88 an ounce), from mature, farm-raised native California white sturgeon, is both bold and lush—an extravagant foil for pasta with crème fraîche. The hackleback caviar ($30 an ounce), from wild hackleback in the rivers of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois, is being hailed as an alternative to osetra, but I found it too steely. The Alverta President ($120 an ounce), from mature A. transmontanus, however, had larger grains that rolled nicely on the tongue before their subtle flavor popped on the palate. The Alverta white sturgeon was the most like osetra: The firm dark-gray beads were delicately flavored, rich, and buttery—a true pleasure. 800-828-9241;

**** Russ & Daughters "We’ve been in business for ninety-three years so we’ve been dealing with caviar for quite a while," says manager Herman Vargas. When Sterling Caviar first approached this company with its homegrown stuff 15 years ago, it was laughed out of the store. For the last five years, however, Sterling has provided A. transmontanus roe for Russ & Daughters’ American osetra. The osetra ($109 for 1 3/4 ounces), from mature white sturgeon, has a nutty roundness and a sweet tang; the river-fished hackleback ($40 for 1 3/4 ounces) was among the best I sampled, its firm black beads offering a briny butteriness; the wild paddlefish ($40 for 1 3/4 ounces) was bright and briny with a clean finish. 800-787-7229;

*** The Seattle Caviar Company Seattle Caviar’s paddlefish caviar ($25 an ounce) comes from the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers in Montana, where the wild fish produce small, mild eggs with a sevrugalike appearance. If you like it fishy, try the delicious-but-not-technically-caviar tiny golden whitefish roe ($14 for two ounces) from Flathead Lake, Montana. 888-323-3005;

**** Sterling Caviar In 1994—after a decade of research—this California company harvested 30 pounds of farmed white sturgeon caviar. This year it will produce 16,000 to 19,000 pounds, including roe for the private labels of Russ & Daughters and Petrossian. The company’s dedication shows in the refined flavors. Sterling’s Classic Caviar ($60 an ounce), with its well-formed, charcoal-gray beads and rich, almost steaklike flavor, was the most voluptuous of the lot. I could eat it all day. The large, marbleized Royal Caviar ($70 an ounce), which is harvested from more mature white sturgeon, makes the sound sought by caviar lovers as it’s spooned up (you’ll know it when you hear it). The flavor was oysterlike in its brininess, whereas the Imperial Caviar ($75 an ounce) was delicately flavored with an elegant pop from the light-green eggs. 800-525-0333;

**** Tsar Nicoulai Another serious contender from California, Tsar was started by a Swedish couple that decided to try their hand with the roe from farm-raised white sturgeon native to the Sacramento River. Today its American paddlefish malossol, which is Russian for "little salt" ($27 an ounce), is a winner: pretty enough to eat alone, with its bluish-gray eggs and fresh flavor that carries a walnut undertone. Though other purveyors quibble about the veracity of its osetra label, Tsar Nicoulai’s California Estate Osetra ($58–$75 an ounce) had full flavor going for it. (Thomas Keller must agree: He serves it at the French Laundry.) The small eggs of the American hackleback sturgeon malossol ($27 an ounce) were almost chocolaty, with a salty bite that would be great tucked into a new potato. 800-952-2842;

**** Walter’s Caviar The package may not inspire purists with its made in georgia label, but the firm, well-formed eggs and lushness of this mature wild hackleback sturgeon ($75 for 4 1/2 ounces) will. President and founder Walter Howell Boone learned processing techniques from a Russian expert. Guests will be impressed—just wait until they’ve tasted it to tell them where it’s from. 912-437-6560;

Domestic Caviar Ratings

* Bottom-Feeder
** Great Garnish or Blini Topper
*** Buy in Bulk for Parties
**** Special Occasion
***** Beluga Who?

Care and Feeding of the Caviar Connoisseur

How long does it keep?

Caviar is perishable and packed to order so only buy what you plan to eat soon. "Fresh caviar should be used within ten days to two weeks and refrigerated in our insulated bags," says Betsy Sherrow, the president of the Seattle Caviar Company. Always store it in the coolest part of the refrigerator—the ideal temperature is between 26 and 32 degrees (never freeze it, though). "Opened jars and tins should be treated like fresh fish and eaten within two days," Sherrow adds.

How much caviar should I serve per person?

Peter Struffenegger of Sterling Caviar recommends having on hand at least a half ounce to one ounce for straight-from-the-tin enthusiasts. If you’re planning to serve it as part of a caviar-based appetizer for eight to ten people, make that three ounces. When you’re using the caviar as a garnish, fig-ure that one ounce yields 20 one-quarter-teaspoon servings.

How about The presentation?

Serve caviar in a glass or mother-of-pearl dish, advises Sterling Caviar’s Struffenegger. As metal will adversely affect the flavor, use mother-of-pearl, horn, or even plastic spoons (caviar "tins" are lined with a thin layer of plastic). Set the dish in a shallow bowl filled with crushed ice to keep the caviar cold.

What is the best way to enjoy caviar?

Armen Petrossian recommends placing a small spoonful at the back of your mouth, gently crushing the beads against your palate with your tongue. Serv- ing it with blini and crème fraîche is nice, but skip the onions and lemon, which can mask the flavor and the texture.

Like a sturgeon

Petrossian offers private caviar tastings of imported and domestic caviar at its New York restaurant. $500; 212-245-2214 At Tsar Nicoulai’s boutique in the San Francisco Ferry Building, you can sample all the offerings for $18. For $65, you can add imported caviars. 415-288-8630