If there's a more daunting, inaccessible foodstuff than what culinary historians call "black gold," we haven't heard of it. But times have changed for caviar, and as our food-obsessed culture grows, the walls between the everyday gourmand and these highly prized sturgeon eggs (or "roe") are tumbling quickly. This is due in no small part to the family-owned, New-York-and-Paris-based Petrossian, the world's leading caviar brand, which has for nearly a century held the dominant position in the market for these briny beads of sea flavor. Because of pollution and the depletion of the Caspian Sea's historically beloved wild product, the majority of today's caviar is sustainable, and farmed, sourced mostly from California's Central Valley; the other stuff, which comes from any number of places, is highly suspect, and it's hard to trust whatever you might find for sale on the Web or black market. Petrossian caviar, for its part, is now 100% sustainably farmed, mostly along the Sacramento River delta, and its most popular U.S. variety, Classic Transmontanus, which sells for a princely $59 per 1.06 ounces, is just one example of a caviar product that would easily appeal to any lover of sushi with roe, smoked fish, or crustaceans.
The often pewter-colored, medium-sized beads of this Transmontanus variety can have lighter tones than others (they're not always true black). They possess a buttery, nut-like sea-salt flavor that has insiders calling them "American Ossetra." (It's a reference to one of the reigning kings of wild caviar that, along with beluga, can almost no longer be had anywhere unless you preside over a powerful sect of the Russian mafia or a small totalitarian nation. )
We love our caviar in classic forms: with blinis or on a flatbread with crème fraiche, capers, and red onions. But caviar is extremely versatile, not simply for your black-tie parties, and can be used sparingly given its strong flavor: say, atop smoked salmon, paired with burrata cheese, or served with summer watermelon sauced with sesame-flavored soy and ginger. At least that's how it's served today, along with champagne or vodka, at Petrossian's Caviar 101 class, which we've attended at the company's landmark boutique and café in West Hollywood. At this disarmingly casual tasting, you're taught – for $35 a person – the finer points of the eggs and their history by the personable young manager, Chris Klapp. You also get a tasting of many other varieties, including pike, trout, and salmon roe, which you take simply with a mini-spoon to the tongue, pressing the eggs against the roof of your mouth until they burst.
We thoroughly enjoyed the experience, not least because of the unusual and often attractive characters that attend this sort of thing, and we didn't feel out of place in dark jeans and a clean shirt. The Tsars, Khans, and other Royals may have once held sway over those who might win a chance to indulge in this desirable delicacy. But today, with classes like this one and the caviar available through Petrossian's online store (from which you know you're getting the real stuff, inspected by experts), the only thing that separates you from the sought-after spawn of one of the world's most expensive giant fish is a credit card number. [petrossian.com]