New Year’s Eve is usually the time of year when everyone turns to caviar, seeking its luxurious celebratory appeal. But the tiny pearls of red, black or white are worth eating all year long; healthy and delicious, caviar has been one of the hottest commodities of 2017, and demand stands to grow in 2018. Not to be confused with roe, the tiny neon-colored fish eggs adorning sushi across the Bay Area, caviar consists of roe that is salted, cured and occasionally aged. Unless it comes from the Acipenseriformes family, which includes various sturgeon and paddlefish, it should legally be called caviar substitute. Salty, rich in umami and featuring a unique texture many find irresistible, caviar is packed with health benefits, like Omega-3, iron, vitamin B12 and more.
In recent years, local chefs and entrepreneurs have come to relish the delicacy as a gourmet addition to dishes and even a centerpiece, rivaling oysters. Deborah Keane, known on the scene as the “Caviar Queen,” is the owner of Sausalito-based California Caviar Company, one of the first sustainable caviar purveyors in the world. “In the caviar industry, sustainability means sustainably raising and farming the fish for the caviar, and sustainable practices within it—no waste, protecting the environment,” she explains. Working with culinary leaders like Dominique Crenn and Jason Ryczek of Farallon, Keane creates “couture” caviar private labels for restaurants’ needs. In addition to producing its own, California Caviar Company imports caviar from unexpected places like Israel and Uruguay, where farmed caviar production is on the rise. “What you’re looking for is a brand that’s coming directly from the source, and not someone who buys in bulk,” she advises. Also, “a valid expiration date—most caviar that’s any good has shelf life up to six weeks only.” In addition to enjoying caviar on the traditional bellini and potato chip, Keane’s guilty pleasure is a slice of buttered brioche, with a thin layer of excellent caviar on top.
At the trendy Hayes Valley bar The Riddler, owner Jen Pelka has curated an enviable selection of bubbly, to which caviar (via the California Caviar Company) is the natural companion. “Champagnes are beautifully structured high-acid wines that pair naturally with the briny bites of caviar,” says Pelka, who loves to consume it with “Lays potato chips, crème fraîche, and chives.” Over at Belga, San Francisco’s only Belgian restaurant, the new Happy Hour menu pairs tiny caviar “bursts” with another classic with a twist: a vodka martini. And on the formal side of things, Twenty Five Lusk now offers “caviar bumps,” a caviar service with blini, red onion and dill, alongside more elaborate offerings, such as a lobster crepe topped with whitefish roe and dill crème fraîche.
Belga sources its caviar from the Caviar Company, whose founders, sisters Petra and Saskia Bergstein, were among the first ones in the area to recognize a local craze. Caviar Company, which provides caviar for many Bay Area restaurants, now has a tasting room in the Marina, where side-by-side tasting will lead the customer to their favorite variety. Each tasting, priced accordingly, includes a small sizing of three different products, from paddlefish, hackleback and smoked trout roe to lucrative Siberian sturgeon, Kaluga hybrid and Russian osetra. “We source from all over the world and try to only work with farms who have their own broodstock and do the spawning themselves,” says Petra. “This way, we know exactly where the fish have been throughout their entire lifespan and can directly know their diet and health history.” The Caviar Company’s product is packaged into chic branded tins, sold online along with champagne, crème fraÎche and even coolers, for an impromptu caviar picnic. Because why not?