Why Is Caviar Suddenly Everywhere These Days?
Fish roe is showing up on potato chips, in doughnut form, and even as a vegan snack.
Fish eggs are everywhere. You may not have noticed, but caviar is quietly reshaping its image and taking up additional real estate on menus throughout the United States. Once reserved solely as a special occasion indulgence, fish roe is showing up on potato chips, in doughnut form, and even as a vegan snack.
Thanks to advances in fish farming and a generational urge to enjoy the finer things in life, caviar has made a comeback—showing up at resorts in Las Vegas, piano bars in New York, French bistros in DC, and even plant-based spots in Chicago.
“What’s not to love about caviar?” asks Nicole Gajadhar, executive chef of The Nines, a new piano bar and restaurant that serves caviar in Manhattan. “Removing all the fuss around it and tasting about 50 types in a month, it really gave me a sense of how extraordinary and precious each of these pearls are, and how intricate the flavors can be depending on its mirror, species, and maturity.”
How has fish farming affected caviar supply?
The history of Beluga, the most revered form of caviar, is complicated. The sturgeon was swimming around back in prehistoric times and grows up to 15 feet long, producing roe so delicious, it’s often described as black gold. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Beluga was overfished in the Caspian sea and became endangered, leading to a worldwide fishing ban with imports banned in the United States.
In response, farms sprung up around the world—most notably in China—to raise Kaluga, a hybrid that grows even larger than Beluga and produces more consistent, reliable roe at a lower cost. Kaluga Queen, the largest Chinese producer of caviar, claims at least 20 Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris use its products. Whether that’s good or bad isn’t always easy to define.
“Chefs love it and I don’t blame them because you get great pictures and plating,” says Edward Panchernikov, director of operations for Caviar Russe, a New York-based supplier and restaurant company. “I’d say 90 percent of the menus in New York are using Chinese sturgeon.”
Caviar Russe, however, is intentionally staying away from Chinese caviar, preferring to use its own exclusive sturgeon from a German farm. By refining the breeding process over the years, the company says it now has roe that closely reflects the size, flavor, and texture of caviar produced by sturgeon that used to be captured in the wild.
“We wanted to see how close we could get to wild-quality caviar,” says Panchernikov. “I’m all about the flavor. When you eat caviar, it should be buttery and rich.”
“When you eat a tablespoon of it, you start to get an understanding of the caviar and the nuances of how the eggs differ between the sturgeon.”
Ryan Ratino, a former executive sous chef with Caviar Russe, now runs Bresca in Washington, DC—and is noticeably more open minded. “Our absolute favorite is the Kaluga caviar from China,” he says. “They do just an amazing job farming these fish. If anything, it’s constantly improving.”
The consistency in price and appearance allows the chef to offer more caviar on a plate, noting that larger portions encourage diners to better appreciate the dish. “We don’t serve caviar to be nibbled on. We serve caviar to be eaten,” Ratino says. “People like to savor five or six eggs at a time because they know it’s expensive or don’t have it very often, but when you eat it like that, the accoutrements take over. When you eat a tablespoon of it, you start to get an understanding of the caviar and the nuances of how the eggs differ between the sturgeon.”
Nina Manchev, who has been the top resource for caviar in Las Vegas for more than 20 years, promotes the Caviar Collective (for education and events) and runs Forte, a tapas restaurant west of the Strip. Her family-operated company, Epicurean Atelier, imports Russian Osetra from a sturgeon farm in Bulgaria and supplies it throughout the country.
“It’s a sustainable eco-farm,” she says. “Everything is hand-selected and harvested specifically for us. We’re constantly bringing in fresh caviar.”
Her method differs from other types of caviar that can be aged or cured for up to three months after harvesting. But traditionally, all proper caviar comes from sturgeon raised for at least seven years before they’re mature enough to produce eggs.
The in-depth process of forecasting and planning keeps the fish fed, healthy, and alive. They spend most of their lives in a contained natural lake and are later transferred to a farm, where they’re cleaned in natural indoor pools—important since most sturgeon are bottom-feeders who will eat anything—while given a special feed from France. It’s almost similar to how prized Iberian pigs are raised in exceptional conditions to produce the best possible product.
“I love the pride and care that goes into something like this,” Manchev says. “Just like with a vineyard, where you’re growing and maintaining grapes. You’re putting your life into something you can share with somebody else.”
Caviar for a new generation
The boom in caviar production conveniently coincides with a growing interest in the delicacy by millennials. “Over the past year, we’ve seen a big increase in caviar sales,” says Matt Baker, owner and executive chef of Michele’s and Gravitas in DC. “You’re dealing with a new generation of diners who are approachable, want to try new things, and are also influenced by what they see on their phones.”
Michele’s makes a point to have standard caviar service, but also draws interest—and Instagram attention—with New Orleans-inspired caviar beignets and a fun play on chips and dip, combining potato chips with a “ranch” Bavarian cream and affordable trout roe. This is a potential gateway for encouraging customers to try a full, proper caviar service and something Baker doesn’t take lightly.
“High-quality caviar should taste like crème fraîche from the ocean,” he says. “It should be creamy, it should be buttery, it should be rich…but also have a salinity that makes you salivate and want to have another bite.”
Miller & Lux has only been open a few months in San Francisco, but is already earning a reputation for its warm, savory caviar doughnuts. The light brioche dough is balanced by the savory kick of a soubise custard to complement the caviar’s saltiness. “A ridiculous, exaggerated amount of caviar gets piled on top,” says executive chef Tyler Florence. “Almost a full tablespoon. It just barely holds on with the diameter of the doughnut. It’s a big bite.”
The experimentation doesn’t stop there. Harlo Steakhouse, a newcomer in the Summerlin master-planned community outside of Las Vegas, has toyed with serving caviar in tacos and macaroons. “We played with so many different vessels—gaufrettes to chicken skins to plantains,” says executive chef Gina Marinelli. “The team is constantly thinking of new things to pair with caviar. Korean BBQ potato chips are coming soon.”
The Nines offers caviar a few different ways, including as a twice-baked potato filled with aged parmesan, crème fraîche, and a large scoop of Osetra caviar. It could easily be viewed as a tip of the hat to the caviar-filled baked potatoes Jacqueline Keenedy famously ate at the White House.
“The team is constantly thinking of new things to pair with caviar. Korean BBQ potato chips are coming soon.”
Gajadhar buys much of her caviar from Caviair, a company that’s bringing caviar to the masses with a new business model. Founded during the pandemic, the supplier does business with a few restaurants, but most sales are via delivery direct to customers in New York with priority overnight shipping available nationwide—with a focus on the millennial customer.
Caviair found success with tasting sets and other personalized gift packages, which allowed people to connect while apart during pandemic lockdowns. Customers are now returning and saving money by purchasing larger orders. Caviair raised its profile further with collaborations with champagne, hotel, and boutique brands.
Enjoy caviar bumps and plant-based versions
The Las Vegas Strip is known for its restaurants as much as its casinos and the brand new Resorts World hotel just introduced Caviar Bar, featuring ultra-premium Caspy Caviar by proprietor and chef Shaun Hergatt. With just one taste, you’ll understand the difference between exceptional caviar and something you’d grab at a trade show luncheon.
But does it really stand out all that much? In Resorts World alone, at least five other restaurants are also serving caviar. There’s FUHU, where caviar tops a sushi roll of toro, crab, and A5 Wagyu beef and Wally’s Wine & Spirits, which offers a traditional presentation with crème fraîche, potato blinis, and other accoutrements.
Whatever you get, expect to spend a few bucks. A serving of the good stuff at Caviar Bar runs between $275 and $350 for 50 grams and $550 to $700 for 125 grams. (Yes, it’s meant to share.)
But there are more casual—and certainly more affordable—ways to enjoy caviar, as well. One of those is a caviar bump. It’s a simple thing, but you have to get it right. Your bartender will drop a scoop of caviar on the back of your hand and you’re meant to have a taste in one bite, but savor it. Break the caviar up with your tongue against the roof of your mouth and swirl it around to cover all your taste buds before washing it down with a cocktail.
“If you don’t want to commit to a $200 caviar service, it’s a nice way to experience caviar for the first time,” says Sam Ross of New York City’s Temple Bar, which offers Siberian Sturgeon caviar bumps for an extra twenty bucks. “It has definitely popped a bunch of caviar cherries.”
Ross says the caviar pairs best with savory, salty martinis like a Gibson, Dirty Martini, or the bar’s Olive Oil Martini. The mixologist is noticing that millennials in particular are looking for new and different ways to enjoy caviar. “It’s definitely a growth market right now,” he says. “There’s a younger generation who have an eye and appreciation for fine food and wine—and caviar is a natural follow up to that.”
As caviar continues to have its moment, chefs are stretching their creativity with alternatives for plant-based diners. Chef Ian Jones has been using tonburi in a limited-edition vegan tasting menu at his Elizabeth restaurant in Chicago. The seed, harvested from burning bush plants in Japan, is often referred to as “land caviar” due to its appearance.
“It has the shape and texture of caviar, but not the same feeling or mouthfeel when you’re eating it,” says Jones. “It doesn’t have the same flavor at all. It’s actually pretty bland.”
The bland flavor, with slight hints of broccoli and artichoke, was actually the blank canvas the chef needed for his dish, fermenting the seeds in a brine and seasoning them with shio koji to match the flavor profile. While waiting for the tonburi to arrive from Japan, Jones experimented with another version that used broccoli seeds dyed black with activated charcoal. Now he often combines the two on the same plate, paired with ingredients like tofu, cauliflower, or white asparagus. Sea grapes (green algae) are added for an even deeper oceanic flavor.
“In America, the plant-based diet is getting very popular, so people are looking for alternatives to food they used to enjoy as omnivores,” adds Jones. “Sustainability plays into it as well.”
He may be on to something. While Resorts World is overloaded with caviar options in Las Vegas, the property recently announced the pending arrival of Crossroads Kitchen, a plant-based concept with a kelp version of caviar on the menu.
“Caviar presentation has definitely evolved,” says Gajadhar of The Nines. “It’s become much more approachable. I feel myself and fellow chefs are finding many ways to make it a little less intimidating to order, such as serving it in creative ways with a sense of nostalgia, while also paying homage to the ingredient itself.”