Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Restaurants Everywhere Now Serve Caviar, and Not Just for Luxe Dinners


Caviar has gone on a journey over the past few years. It’s the TikTok snack du jour, something to be eaten by the bump instead of the spoonful, paired perfectly with potato chips in place of blini. It’s fun, of course, to take such an emblem of wealth and make it a bit more populist. But recently, the sturgeon roe appears to be returning to tradition in a slightly untraditional way. Across the country, restaurants are offering not bumps or new plays on the small, briny globes, but conventional caviar courses: roe served by the ounce with toasts and accompaniments. Don’t worry, though — you don’t have to put up with white tablecloths and $300 European prix fixes to get them. These courses might be traditional, but the restaurants they’re found in are anything but.

The overall caviar trend has perhaps brought caviar courses and supplements back to menus. At Hey Kiddo in Denver, alongside courses of pork ribs or cold sesame noodles, there are three caviar options available by the ounce, one of which is sold at market price. Joyce in LA serves “soulful southern fare” like cast-iron mac and cheese, but also an ounce of royal sturgeon caviar for $150. Iranian restaurant Joon in Virginia offers a caviar service with lime and lavash in addition to a menu of kebob and khoresh. At Ladder 4 Wine Bar in Detroit, you can add 28 grams of Kaluga caviar to hash browns. Bunny’s in Baltimore offers it as an appetizer to fried chicken. No matter the rest of the menu’s culinary influence or price points, it’s now common enough to find a $100-or-more caviar offering, about 4 teaspoons worth of luxury.

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In some cities, that facilitation is a matter of demographics. Dalida in San Francisco is surrounded by some of the wealthiest counties in the U.S. It serves Kaluga caviar with pita and “traditional garnishes” for $142, or diners can choose to add a caviar course to a $75 tasting menu. Co-executive chef Sayat Ozyilmaz wants to serve a wide range of people but also understands the “tech bros” who won’t bat an eye at ordering either of these options.

“Caviar is a little bit more within reach than in other parts of the country,” he says.

South Indian restaurant Copra in San Francisco offers osteria caviar for $120 an ounce, served with kallappam and “traditional accompaniments,” which chef Sri Gopinathan says is a way to attract a more varied clientele, especially now that more non-Indian people consider Indian cuisine an option for a celebratory night out.

“I think you can have a decent meal without spending too much money in my restaurant, for sure,” Gopinathan says. “At the same time, I also want to facilitate everyone and say, ‘Yeah, you can have caviar.’”

But it’s not just the wealthiest ZIP codes where this is showing up.

“We don’t consider ourselves a special occasion restaurant, necessarily,” says Joe Frillman of Daisies in Chicago, who describes the restaurant as blending Italian and Midwestern influences. “We’re more of a neighborhood restaurant. But we do know that people come here to celebrate often.”

He’s also noticed how caviar popping off on TikTok and Instagram has piqued many customers’ curiosity. The restaurant offers four caviar options — from $18 smoked trout roe to $135 beluga — meant to supplement the $8 onion dip, though Frillman says people often order it on its own or ask for caviar added to other dishes, as well. Having caviar, he says, allows Daisies to be a full-service restaurant, offering different experiences and different price points without that much of a lift.

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The ease of offering caviar is one reason it’s become more common. Caviar requires little preparation and barely any storage room, and it is easy to order more of if you happen to miscalculate. The chefs all said they don’t move many ounces of caviar each week — typically under a dozen — but it’s not a hassle to keep on hand. And it also might be more of a deal than it seems.

“I started my career in 2008,” Gopinathan says. “It was probably $100 or $125 for an ounce of caviar. Today, it’s almost the same price.”

Ozyilmaz agrees the price has stayed the same or even come down in the past couple of years (a 2019 report said prices were at record lows), and splitting that $100-an-ounce serving between three or four people makes it a more manageable indulgence.

While none of the chefs interviewed said they put caviar on the menu just to get in on the trend, its presence tells customers that indulgence is an option and can be had in perhaps a more familiar setting than they’d expect. This is especially true for restaurants serving non-Western cuisine. Seeing caviar at an Indian or Levantine restaurant signals that this cuisine is no longer ghettoized, that it belongs in a fine dining atmosphere.

“There is a demand for all our ‘ethnic’ neighborhood restaurants to become a little bit more refined, as your first-generation and older immigrants are aging and they want to be able to eat their own food in a nicer setting,” Ozyilmaz says. He estimates that while a smaller percentage of his clientele is Eastern Mediterranean, “They feel really proud that we’ve created this very modern restaurant without, you know, your genie lamps and things like that.”

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The arrival of caviar courses across menus mostly shows how the demarcations between kinds of restaurants — fast casual, date night, dive bar, upscale — have been shifting and fading. Restaurants are trying to be everything everywhere, all at once. Now, as diners, we can order a $15 burger on a weeknight with our kids or ball out with caviar and sparkling wine on the weekend at the same restaurant. We can bring our parents to enjoy the food they grew up with or do it on our own, but maybe with a cocktail or two. We can eat popcorn chicken and beluga with blini at the same time. None of it is out of place. We just made “the place” bigger.

Bea Hayward is an illustrator and comic artist from California whose work draws inspiration from the cartoons, children’s books, band art, and T-shirt designs she grew up admiring, the people and world around her, and her imagination.
Copy edited by Kelli Pate



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