High-grade caviar, low-grade price tag
FSB's gastronomic experts rate a selection of non-Caspian caviars.
By Carlye Adler, FSB contributor

(FSB Magazine) -- Amid a ban on caviar from the overfished Caspian and Black seas, caviar connoisseurs are increasingly turning to more sustainable alternatives. But can Western caviar match the mighty beluga? To find out, we held a blind taste test of four caviars: one French and the rest American. (L'Osage was not included, due to a shipping glitch.) Our testers included Ricky Estrellado, executive chef at Japanese fusion mecca Nobu New York; Jean-Luc Kieffer, chef and part owner of trendy Manhattan French eatery Picnic; and our own editorial director and resident gourmand, Brian Dumaine, who weighed in with a civilian assessment. All four caviars were provided by a well-known New York caviar distributor that requested anonymity for fear of offending its suppliers.

First up were tiny black eggs from the wild hackleback, an American river sturgeon found in Tennessee and Illinois (about $20 an ounce). "I would never use this," said Estrellado, who says he goes through about 20 ounces of caviar a day at Nobu. "It looks cheap and fake - like it's been dyed. It stains the plate." Picnic's Kieffer concurred: "The finish goes away quickly, which may be a good thing," he said disdainfully. FSB's Dumaine found the roe "bland" and "insufficiently salty."

American paddlefish roe
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Next we compared two farmed sturgeon caviars, one from France ($75 an ounce) and another from Northern California (about $50 an ounce). Estrellado preferred the "earthy taste" of the transmontanus white sturgeon from California, which is closely related to the Caspian osetra. FSB's Dumaine thought it tasted more like dirt. "This one needs vodka," he said. Picnic's Kieffer agreed with Dumaine that the California sturgeon roe's flavor was a bit "murky." Both preferred the grayish-black, medium-sized eggs from the baeri Siberian sturgeon, which is farmed in France in conditions similar to its native waters. "It has good salt and acidity, and a creaminess to it," said Kieffer. Estrellado didn't like the French caviar's "mushiness."

Our tasters all swooned over the last caviar. "This one is very clean, crisp and buttery," said Estrellado. Kieffer also liked the mild flavor and salt of the greenish-gray eggs ($20 an ounce). "It's pretty beautiful," he mused. This was the only nonsturgeon roe that we sampled. It came from - remember, our test was blind - wild American paddlefish caught in the rivers of Tennessee and Kentucky.

Have you tried American-made caviar? Do you think domestic caviar can compete with the more sophisticated Caspian and Black sea varieties? Tell us what you think.

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Next: Making millions on budget caviar

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