Salty Little Jewels

Caviar at St. Petersburg.

When it comes to sheer culinary indulgence, tradition says nothing surpasses a mound of chilled caviar. It’s never been more true than now, when a one-ounce serving of treasured Caspian Sea beluga sturgeon eggs—if you can even find them—costs around $150.

Fortunately, there are a number of very good “poor man’s” caviar alternatives, among them the roe of lumpfish, whitefish, paddlefish, bowfin, and salmon. There’s also an American sturgeon product that is quite tasty.

True caviar connoisseurs are content to eat the eggs without adulteration, but a more common practice is to spoon them onto toast points or blini (small buckwheat pancakes made in the Russian tradition) with accompaniments of sour cream, butter, chopped hard-boiled egg, minced onion, and capers. One local restaurant that offers a first-rate presentation of this tradition is St. Petersburg.

The place rollicks on weekends with patrons enjoying traditional Russian dishes, live music, and more than 100 varieties of vodka. You can dig into a three-ounce serving of premium red Alaskan salmon roe with all the trimmings for $19. Or opt for the Tsar’s Blini appetizer—a pancake stuffed with salmon and sturgeon roe and house-cured Nova Scotia salmon.

But if you absolutely, positively must toast in the holidays or the new year with the real stuff from Russia, give a call a couple weeks ahead to St. Petersburg owner Andrey Shmykov. He says he’ll see what his market sources can find.

St. Petersburg
3610 France Ave. N.

Best and Next Best

Caviars are classified by the type of fish that produces the eggs, the size of the roe, and the way in which it’s processed. The most prized and expensive varieties come from the Caspian’s beluga sturgeon, in part because of the taste and in part because the fish can take up to 25 years to grow to maturity. In recent years, international actions designed to protect sturgeon in the Caspian have resulted in quotas for fisherman and greatly reduced quantities of beluga (the largest eggs, pea-sized and silver-gray to black in color), osetra (smaller eggs of gray to brownish-gray and the next-most desired quality), and sevruga (gray eggs that are even smaller and ranked in quality after osetra) caviar coming to market.

—P. L.