I love caviar! Yes, the processed eggs of the mature sturgeon fish are a lifelong passion of mine. I have partaken of caviar all over the world during a long and lavish life. First tasted it at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo in 1953 during an R&R respite there from the Korean War. Wow, a fabulous new taste experience. (A long way from my upbringing in the Jewish neighborhood of Flatbush in Brooklyn, New York. Doubt if either of my parents ever tasted it, though it is a natural supplement to their smoked fish.) Have eaten gobs of it in Moscow and St, Petersburg in the '80s when it was plentiful and relatively inexpensive. Then took many tins of it home, purchased at the airport and forwarded to your plane. In those days, all caviar came from fish spawned in the Crimean Sea of Iran/Russia. They processed it there, with pure water and salt, packaged it in cans, and then shipped it to the world. Beluga was the best grade, followed by Osetra. Today importing beluga is outlawed all over the world, since the beluga sturgeon was declared an endangered species in 2008. Poaching, smuggling and overfishing had decimated the Caspian supply. As I said, I have eaten lots of caviar everywhere, from the Far and Middle East to Europe. London has always been a second home for caviar, with my longtime hangout, the Dorchester Hotel, keeping a huge supply on hand for privileged guests. Harrod's had special sources, as did Fortum & Mason. France has always been a very special caviar destination since it is the original home-away-from-home of the Petrossian family and business. The two Petrossian brothers and wives opened their Paris shop in 1920. I have visited their caviar atelier at 144 rue de l'Université many, many times over the past 60 years. Always a dollop (or two) of beluga, along with small blinis and a shot of Russian vodka. Heavenly. It began in the mid-Fifties, when the franc was low and my appetite high, when Iranian beluga caviar was still available and affordable; the Shah still ruled his country and its Caspian Sea fisheries with an iron fist. So much has changed since.... on my last trip there it was so prohibitively expensive I had to pass, though my appreciation of fine caviar and iced vodka remains indefatigable.
Which may explain why I was at the PETROSSIAN BOUTIQUE & RESTAURANT (321 N. Robertson Blvd., a block north of Beverly at Rosewood, (310) 271-6300) this week for a small dinner party to celebrate some new dishes which their so-talented exec chef, Giselle Wellman, was adding to the lavish menu of this cool, casually-elegant shop and restaurant. (They are diagonally across the boulevard from the very popular celebrity hangout, Eddie Kerkhof and Silvio Demori's Il Piccolino, and if you can't find metered parking for Petrossian, the valet at Il Piccolino will take your car for about 8 bucks, a good deal.) It was a little over four years ago that this amazing young woman chef took over the kitchen toque from its original chef, a somewhat ego-driven talent. Much has changed since then, in the kitchen and in the world of caviar. She has refined the menu, added many exciting lunch and dinner dishes, and made this a hot hot spot for people seeking delicious, unusual food with a touch of elegance (and occasionally a dab of caviar.) Giselle, a veteran of Jean-Georges, Mario Batali's Del Posto, and Bouchon here, has created one of of the most exciting, gastronomically-satisfying restaurants in our city.
At every meal here, I still begin with a signature wonder, the Napolean Tartare ($35), an ethereal dish of hand-sliced steak tartare gently seasoned and formed into a rectangle, then layered in the center with a spread of caviar. Served with a pinch of baby greens seasoned with black truffle oil and a few shards of crisp toast, a memorable taste. (You can get it for $22 without the caviar, by why bother?) At last night's dinner, she began the meal with another signature dish, Egg Royale ($14), scrambled eggs in the egg shell mixed with vodka whipped cream and topped with a dollop of....yes, you guessed it, caviar. I smiled to myself at the memory of first tasting this dish at the old L'Orangerie, where in the '90s it cost $24. A platter of tiny Buckwheat Blinis with caviar and crème fraiche ($28) appeared and were quickly demolished by my companions. I passed on the Cauliflower Soup ($14) and went directly to the small plate of Petrossian Smoked Sturgeon ($28), which was serve with pickled red onion, honey gem lettuce and pickled cucumber. I tasted the crème fraiche, bagel crumble and appreciated the anchovy-lemon vinaigrette dressing.
Rare duck breast with sweet potato puree.
I was the only one at the table who tasted the next dish and then gently pushed it away, watching with admiration as my friends wolfed it up. It was new to the menu: Rabbit Ragu Potato Gnocchi ($18), and it was not the rabbit but my aversion to all gnocchi which did it. I did more than justice to her next main course, the wonderful Whole Mediterranean Sea Bass ($40), served with bok choy, ginger, Serrano chili, garlic, dashi, sesame. It could have come from the kitchen of a master Japanese chef, so perfectly prepared. Giselle then followed with two main courses which just happen to be among my favorite dishes in the world. I love a good duck breast, here she is offering up a California Free-Range Duck Breast ($32) which comes with sweet potato, sour cherries, pecan, meringue, and drizzled with duck jus. The duck had been cooked just to my rare taste, juicy and richly gamey. I barely finished more than my share when Giselle brought out a dish of something which she knows I love. I once told her that "I have never net a short rib that I didn't love," and she remembered this. The rich chunk of earthy beef rib was served with a parsnip mash and pear. Yes, I was a happy camper. I finished my magnificent dinner with a cup of rich coffee and a new dessert: the Petrossian Signature Caviar Powder Macaron. Yes, the macaron craze has reached here, and she added a signature touch with the dusting of caviar powder (a shaker of which sells for $88.)
General Manager Christopher Klapp is my go-to expert on all things caviar, and we later had a discussion about the state of caviar in the world today. He told me that they had gotten a small supply of Armenian caviar, which sold for something like $525 for a 125 g, tin. More was expected in at Thanksgiving. He said that most of their domestic caviar came from Northern California sturgeon farms near Sacramento, which farmed the eggs from mature sturgeons and then sent it to New York and Paris for grading and packaging. He mentioned there is a new sturgeon farm in central Florida which shows promise. I read in a recent New York Times article that there are 90 farms in 20 countries raising sturgeons. The Chinese are coming on strong in the world of caviar. They have a freshwater lake called Hangzhou, and the waters of this 221-sq. mile lake is pure, with strong currents. Their sturgeons are housed in huge cages that can be raised and lowered to a depth of 164 feet to keep them cold. Their Schrenki eggs are beginning to approach what you once found in the Osetra of the Caspian, according to experts. I have tasted caviar from many different sources in recent months, from Israel to the Balkans, Bulgaria to France. Chris told me that Petrossian packages its caviar with labeling as to whether it is domestic or imported but does not indicate the country of origin. I told Chris that I have met Armen Petrossian, the patriarch of the clan, with his ever-present bowtie and swashbuckling moustache, a wonderful character. He told me that for 94 years they have been recognized as the foremost purveyor of fine caviar in the world. Chris then told me that a large majority of the caviar now sold in the United States is California-raised. "Our best-selling Transmontanus caviar comes from white sturgeons grown in the tiny town of Elverta in the Sacramento Valley. Our head, Armen, has said that the only guide we use to judge quality is our sensese. Only taste, smell, color, brilliance and texture of each species counts."
American caviar is delicious, eminently affordable, and a great way to support the American economy. In these days of uncertainty we all need small moments of pure pleasure...and what can bring one more satisfaction than a taste of good caviar?
Petrossian's restaurant is affordable, excellent, stunning, with exquisite attention to detail and flavor. Now serving Monday through Friday from 11 am to 10 pm...10 am to 10 pm on Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm on Sunday.....with a full bar and happy hour.
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