At Capital Food Fight this year, Sax restaurant topped an asparagus flan with Sterling caviar. Photograph by Jessica Voelker
Caviar is the centerpiece of any celebration, but when you’re paying more than $30 (or more than $150) for a shy ounce of roe, you’ll want to get your money’s worth. We checked in with two of the area’s caviar connoisseurs—MJ Gimbar, fishmonger for BlackSalt’s market and restaurant, and Bobby Moore, owner of Cannon’s Seafood—to give us the lowdown on wallet-friendly options, over-the-top splurges, storing tips, and more.
Sturgeon caviar is the most prized (and costly) in the world. Wild beluga sturgeon roe is now illegal in the US under the Endangered Species Act, but there are other members of the sturgeon family that produce a comparable (and sustainable) product. Farmed kaluga caviar from the Huso dauricus sturgeon is considered a close second. The bigger the fish, the bigger the eggs, and the glossy, grayish kaluga beads are coveted for both their size and their flavor.
“The higher-end eggs tend to be more savory and less salty,” says Gimbar. “Kaluga has an intense, buttery richness with just a kiss of seaweed flavor.”
The bad news: Kaluga will set your back $200 for an ounce at BlackSalt’s market. For something a touch less pricey, BlackSalt, Cannon’s, and other retailers carry lightly nutty Russian osetra sturgeon caviar, which can run anywhere from $76 to $150. Still too much? White and Siberian sturgeon caviar both boast a smooth, buttery flavor, and generally cost between $50 and $80.
While no great caviar is cheap, there are good options for $30 and under. Both Gimbar and Moore recommended fresh, domestic paddlefish roe for a budget-friendly option.
“It’s smooth, with an intense sea tang,” says Moore.
Paddlefish can be served in the traditional way with blinis, crème fraîche, and chopped egg and onion; a method that highlights the flavor of good caviar (when you have the best of the best, you’ll just eat it off a pearl or other nonmetal spoon). Another prevalent domestic product, hackleback caviar, is similarly priced, but with smaller, darker eggs and more intense mineral flavor. Gimbar recommends topping freshly shucked oysters with it (both Cannon’s and BlackSalt shuck oysters to go), or tossing it into pasta with butter or sea urchin. Salmon roe—the cheapest type of fish egg, costing as little as $12—is another good option when you’re looking to incorporate caviar into dishes. If your heart is set on blinis but your budget is low, try the mini pancakes topped with good smoked salmon, salmon roe, and crème fraîche with a little chopped dill, onion, and egg.
Buying and Storing
Most caviar comes packaged in a transparent dish. Before purchasing, Gimbar says to check that the individual eggs are easy to discern from one another—caviar should never look like mush—and that the eggs aren’t dented. There shouldn’t be a lot of liquid in the bottom of the container, and when you open it, the roe shouldn’t smell sour (there may be a subtle sea scent, but anything stinkier is a bad sign).
Unopened, fresh caviar can last in the fridge up to a month, but once you’ve cracked into the container, it should be eaten in a day or two. It’s best to keep the unopened container on a bed of ice or at the back of a cool fridge, especially if you’re opening the fridge often (thus warming it up) while entertaining. If you’re planning on leftovers, keep the caviar in its original container (never, ever pair it with metal, which alters the flavor), and wrap it in plastic to keep any water out.
Where to Find It
BlackSalt Fish Market
4833 MacArthur Blvd., NW; 202-342-9101
Tip: Call ahead (read: now) to make your order, especially during the holiday (and if you want to snag kaluga). The store also stocks accoutrements like house-made blinis. Too much trouble? There’s caviar service in the restaurant, albeit at a higher price.
Cannon’s Fish Market
1065 31st St., NW; 202-337-8366
Tip: Paddlefish, hackleback, and other roes are on hand, but for pricey osetra and other varieties, you’ll have to order today for New Year’s Eve. Cannon’s also delivers.
6655 Old Dominion Dr., McLean; 703-448-3828
Tip: Paddlefish, Siberian, and farmed osetra are all on sale for the holidays; the latter is $67 an ounce.
Multiple area locations
Tip: You may not find the top of the top line at your local Whole Foods, but the market is a good last-minute resort.