Western chefs find California caviar fits the bill of fare.
Caviar may never be as American as apple pie, but aficionados of the lightly salted roe of sturgeon now have a source on our home shores. For an increasing number of top chefs and savvy consumers, fish farms in Central California that use sustainable methods are replacing the Caspian Sea as the preferred supplier of these briny pearls coveted by kings and commoners alike. Historically, up to 95 percent of the world's caviar has come from the Caspian, but since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, overharvesting and pollution have imperiled the sea's most famous sturgeon species—beluga, osetra, and sevruga.
Using techniques pioneered at UC-Davis, two companies—Tsar Nicoulai Caviar and Stolt Sea Farm, which sells under the Sterling name—now raise native California white sturgeon in enormous aboveground tanks scattered throughout Sacramento County. The caviar they produce is garnering kudos from the pros. "In taste and texture, California caviar compares very favorably to Caspian osetra," says chef Traci Des Jardins of San Francisco's Jardinière and Acme Chop House restaurants. Moreover, she adds, "The quality is more consistent and there's no negative environmental impact."
California caviar varies from light gray to jet-black (color affects only visual aesthetics, not flavor) and the taste is nutty and mild, with a hint of salt and a creamy finish. Prices usually hover around $50 per ounce—expensive, but less so than comparable Caspian varieties. You can order it directly from Tsar Nicoulai (800-952-2842, www.tsarnicoulai.com) and Sterling (800-525-0333, www.sterlingcaviar.com).
At Tsar Nicoulai's café (415-288-8630) in San Francisco's beautifully renovated Ferry Building, you can indulge in a truffled scrambled egg garnished with California Estate Osetra ($14). Or try your own side-by-side sampling of five American and Caspian caviars ($46) atop traditional buckwheat blini with a dollop of crème fraîche. Accompanied by a flute of cold, dry sparkling wine, it's as fine a meeting of New World and Old as you're ever likely to convene.
Photography by Sheri Giblin
This article was first published in November 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.