Farm-raised sturgeon caviar is the best hope for the future. Many top chefs already swear by it. After my snafus with Amazon, it was too late to order American-farmed sturgeon roe, but by then I'd ordered two near-bargain sturgeon caviars at CaviarStar.com. Their French farm-raised caviar has the "melting" texture of true sevruga. The soft, delicious eggs were the least salty of any of the caviars I tasted, and strongly resembled the sevruga I bought years ago, when I began this "tasting" process. It's the most immediately likable of the crew. This site also offers mother-of-pearl caviar spoons and other delights.
Gray Iranian sevruga (the basic version, not one of the premium spreads) was the "control" for all these placebos. It, too, came from CaviarStar, and like the French caviar, it had a "melting" mouth-feel. I thought its texture was like edible velvet, but my partner found it mushy (it does cling to the roof of your mouth). Initially salty and a little tangy, when savored it developed complex maritime flavors that vaguely resembled sea urchin roe (uni at your local sushi bar).
The roads not taken: Sterling caviar comes from white sturgeon farmed near Sacramento. It's the choice of many chefs who've abandoned Caspian caviars, and is typically described as "buttery" or "creamy." It's available in various grades from Stolt Sea Farm, which also offers Scottish, Norwegian, and Brooklyn-style lox at decent prices. From the other end of the world, Uruguayan osetra is developing a fine reputation. Brought from Siberia to Uruguay as fingerlings, the sturgeon have been farm-raised ever since. It's available from Paramount Caviar (www.paramountcaviar.com), which also sells mother-of-pearl caviar spoons and all manner of gourmet delights.
Tsar Nicoulai Caviar offers California farm-raised osetra, along with Siberian, Iranian, paddlefish, and salmon caviars, all at relatively steep prices. (You can also order the Tsar's Cal osetra from Williams-Sonoma, where it's more than double the Tsar's price.)
Unopened caviar lasts two to three weeks if kept in the coldest part of the refrigerator, i.e., the meat bin. Once opened, use it or lose it within a few days. Don't use metal spoons (not even sterling silver) to serve or eat with -- they impart metallic off-tastes. If you don't have mother-of-pearl or bone caviar spoons on hand, use plastic spoons. (If you're serving caviar on top of pancakes or blini, regular tableware is acceptable, since there's no such thing as a "caviar fork.") Caviar is best served between 50 and 60 degrees, to bring out the most flavor.
The classic Russian service for caviar is to place it in a glass or crystal bowl set inside a larger bowl filled with ice. (This keeps the caviar a bit too cold, but it's traditional.) Surround the outer bowl with assemble-it-yourself sides of buckwheat blini, plain whole-grain crackers such as melba toast, minced hard-boiled eggs, fine-minced red onions, chopped chives, chopped dill, crème fraîche or sour cream. To drink: iced vodka.
French service typically complements the caviar with a "parfait" of potato-based pancakes (made with egg whites for buoyancy), riced or sieved hard-cooked egg, lox, crème fraîche seasoned with snipped chives, dillweed, and a touch of horseradish and lemon rind. A generous dollop of caviar goes on top. To drink: very cold dry champagne.
Regular-people service: Make German/Jewish latkes or Swiss rôti from whatever recipe you like. Top with chopped lox, crème fraîche, or sour cream (seasoned as in the French service above, if desired), with caviar on top. Scatter chopped chives and dill, if you haven't mixed them into the cream. To drink: a dry Chardonnay. (For salmon or Avruga caviars, dry Sauvignon Blanc, such as those from the Marlborough area of New Zealand, is an option.)
Other ideas: Hollowed-out cooked new potatoes topped with sour cream and caviar. Deviled eggs topped with caviar. A fried whole-wheat tortilla smeared with sour cream and caviar. Pasta with clarified butter, crème fraîche, grated Parmesan, and caviar (lox optional). Or you can dig out your ancient recipe for "caviar pie" (a chilled version of the French parfait, minus the potatoes) and surprise your friends by substituting a good caviar for the lumpfish roe.
What's Wrong with Caspian Roes?
If you read my review of Osetra Restaurant a couple of months ago, then you have permission to skip the following two paragraphs. The problems with Caspian caviars (the "big three" of beluga, sevruga, and osetra) began with the breakup of the Soviet Union. It turns out that the "Evil Empire" (as our president at the time called it) was better at protecting the species of the Caspian Sea than are the impoverished "Stans" (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, etc.) that now govern those shores.
The Russian Mafia leaped at the opportunity to poach sturgeon from unpoliced waters, even as big industry (gasoline companies, hydroelectric generators, etc.) built plants near the coast and started spewing pollutants into the sea. The beluga sturgeon, a species that takes years to mature and even then produces little roe, is now so close to extinction that many of the world's top chefs refuse to serve it as a matter of conscience. The osetra and smaller sevruga sturgeons are also severely threatened. As fewer fish are left to reach maturity, more roe is harvested from barely pubescent fish. This (along with pollution) affects the quality and flavor of the caviar. It also removes young breeders from the population, which bodes ill for future supplies. The only Caspian state that still maintains strict water standards and catch-limits is Iran, which our current Fearless Leader cites as a member of the "Axis of Evil." By next New Year's, I wouldn't be surprised if Iranian products are once again embargoed from the U.S.
Where to Buy Caviar
Whole Foods has the widest caviar selection that I could find locally. At this writing, they were offering hackleback, bowfin (a smaller, saltier Mississippi River species from Louisiana), and whitefish roe, along with more expensive Caspian caviars (osetra, sevruga) packed under the reputable Petrossian label. They expect to have American-farmed sturgeon from the Pacific Northwest on hand from December 15 until New Year's. Harvest Ranch (Del Mar) and Jonathan's (La Jolla) had only Caspian caviars (osetra, sevruga) available on December 1, but Jonathan's may bring in some American farm-raised caviar before Christmas. Seaside Market in Cardiff will have Caspian caviars from just before Christmas until New Year's, or will special-order caviar upon request. (Phone 760-753-5445 and ask for the Fish Department.)