Caviar Tasting

john mccain

Pity the sturgeon.

It looks like it was designed on the sixth day, when God took a nap and let his 4-year-old nephew Jason make some of the fish. It has a body like a dinosaur and the whiskers of an Old West general store owner. Its face has even been the subject of an Internet meme – Sturgeon Face, made popular by the likes of Sen. John McCain, because he is so frown-y.

Unlike John McCain, some sturgeons don’t attain sexual maturity until they are 22 years old. This makes them susceptible to over-fishing, and as a result they have become endangered. Sturgeon have no teeth and are bottom-feeders. They eat by swallowing whatever is at the bottom of lakes, river and oceans, which means their main source of nutrients is most likely discarded handguns.

Most notably, sturgeon produce some of the most expensive food in the world – caviar. Caviar is unfertilized sturgeon roe (fish eggs), that have been processed and salted. Not only is the sturgeon ugly and widely mocked, it is hunted ferociously.

It is an unfortunate fish.

In spite of all this, I decided recently to learn more about caviar. If we’re going to wipe out a few species of fish so that Arianna Huffington has something to feed Hillary Clinton while they gossip about Mitt Romney’s magic underwear, I want to see what all the fuss is about. I attended a complimentary caviar tasting at Petrossian Paris in West Hollywood, where the excellent staff served my fiancée Jen and me several caviar dishes.

I had eaten caviar once before and I didn’t enjoy it. It turns out there was a reason I did not enjoy it. I ate it wrong. I ate it with a metal spoon. Christopher Klapp, the general manager at Petrossian, told us that metal spoils the flavor. “You do not want to let metal touch caviar,” he said in the same tone my fiancée uses when I tackle her 6-pound Pomeranian mix like I’m Clay Matthews and it’s Ben Roethlisberger. (For the record, the dog loves it. Dogs love danger. You never see a cat get tackled by a 180-pound man, pop up and lick his face for 20 minutes. Cats skulk off to the corner of the room. And they plot. Dogs head outside and wash your car.)

“No metal spoons?” I said to Klapp. “Am I supposed to eat this fish roe with my hands? Like a Canadian?”

The staff brought out three pieces of cutlery.

One was a palette. It is mainly used to row tiny boats. Its secondary use is to spoon caviar from the serving dish to your plate.

The second was the mother of pearl spoon. This is what is used to eat caviar after it is on your plate. It can also be used to flick wads of bread across a restaurant. Probably.

Finally there was a metal spoon that serves as a stern reminder not to use metal spoons.

This proved to be an educational trip. For instance, I learned that caviar only comes from sturgeon. If someone tries to sell you catfish caviar, don’t buy it. Get out of their van and leave the marsh.

What to drink with caviar? Our man Klapp recommended chilled vodka, champagne or dry white wine. If it’s something you would expect a Russian tsar to drink before breakfast, it’s probably a good drink to pair with caviar.

Because I had a bad experience with caviar once before, I prepared myself for the worst. With my pinky skyward, and a large glass of water at the ready, I braced myself for the first taste. I lifted the tiny mother of pearl spoon to my mouth and, to my surprise, the caviar was good. It was very good. It was good plain. It was good with crème de freche on a blini. It was good in cauliflower soup and on flatbread and on fish.

Hey, I discovered, I like caviar.

I feel like I am finally ready for the society big-time, ready to go to a fancy party, to say things like “I heard the World Economic Forum in Davos was a total bust this year” and “If the price of crude drops any lower I’ll have to sell my gardner” and “Want to see my magic underwear, Mrs. Clinton?” I will do so while eating caviar, without making Sturgeon Face.


Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles

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