Remember when caviar used to materialize right around New Years Eve? The tiny kaluga pearls and the precious ikura drops were, in the past, reserved for special occasions and celebrations. But the luxury item, once enlisted to end the year in style, is now thrown at us from every corner of the Bay Area dining scene. We’re swimming, drowning in caviar — and the timing is interesting, to say the least.
Look at the latest openings in the city, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a menu that doesn’t include a caviar dish. At buzzy Hayes Valley spot Le Fantastique, guests are greeted with tiny eclairs topped with kaluga, and madeleines carrying golden osetra. The stunning new Palm Court, part of the RH empire in the Dogpatch, offers a caviar service in three price tiers and puts the luminescent orbs on grilled avocados. Handroll Project in the Mission decorates uni and monkfish liver pate hand-rolls with festive salmon roe, and even Osito, where the focus on open fire wouldn’t necessarily hint at the briny product, recently added a double-salty touch, in the form of a rabbit skewer with caviar, pork belly, and trout roe. Alongside newcomers, time-tested restaurants are stepping up their game as well: a Third Cousin scallop crudo with reserve kaluga caviar here, a Press golden osetra caviar with a shrimp blini there. It’s a caviar bonanza.
Interestingly, the current Bay Area caviar trend feels profound and sophisticated — a step above the nationwide hand-licking, eye-roll-inducing bump craze, and right in line with the hyped memes hilariously equating caviar to … other substances. No longer decadent entertainment, it is now the star of the show. A cult favorite.
The best testament to the full caviar takeover is, perhaps, the fact that at many new establishments caviar, and roe, its slightly less fancy counterpart, make more than one appearance. At the year-old Regiis Ova Caviar & Champagne Lounge, a seemingly permanent Yountville pop-up by chef Thomas Keller, the whole menu is an ode to caviar, from the traditional services to caviar-adorned waffles and eggs. Ernest, in the Mission, has caviar in three different dishes, including atop its incredibly decadent tater tots. And it doesn’t get more caviar-centric than the new Birch & Rye, where diners might be served a palate cleanser of red currant, sea urchin, and kaluga, as well as a dessert of rye doughnuts with caramel, and — you guessed it — exquisite Siberian sturgeon caviar.
Caviar is surely peaking, along with gas prices — but to what do we owe this treat? Could it be the mighty vibe shift we’re experiencing post-pandemic; the sensual attack of the night luxe aesthetic and the sudden appeal of unapologetic wealth? One Bay Area caviar-slinger offers a slightly less extravagant explanation. “I feel that a lot of restaurants offer caviar to their guests now, partially because there are so many quality options on where you can source your caviar from,” Ernest chef-owner Brandon Rice says.
Among the local purveyors, Rice name-checks Tsar Nicoulai, The Caviar Co., and Thomas Keller’s aforementioned Regiis Ova, all with their own, recently opened tasting lounges in the Bay. “I feel that caviar is something nice to be able to offer your guests at a reasonable price point,” Rice says. At Ernest, the tots are priced at $31, and the ikura-covered sushi rice, an instant Instagram classic, at $21.
To 3rd Cousin’s chef and owner Greg Lutes, the timing simply feels right, as the audience is maturing from frivolous bumps to deeper caviar appreciation. “You could argue that we’ve reached peak saturation with people doing ‘bumps’ of caviar, which I think is silly,” he says. “But for me when used correctly it will always have the ability to elevate a meal. Caviar is just one of those ingredients that is indulgent and luxurious, it’s celebratory.”
At Birch & Rye, in addition to an already caviar-leaning menu, a new, 9-course, $200 caviar counter tasting menu just launched, begging to be accompanied by a $99 sparkling wine flight. At the restaurant, which is entirely shielded from the street, there’s almost an unspoken consensus that there’s no such thing as too much caviar, reality be damned. “It’s one of these Russian treasures that has been embraced worldwide as the ultimate symbol of celebration in fine dining,” says Anya El-Wattar, chef, owner, and passionate Russian food expert. “Nationally, there has been an uptick in caviar sales, with more people ordering caviar online and in retail settings.”
While El-Wattar notes that “caviar is expensive to source responsibly” — a dish adorned with caviar touches might be relatively affordable, but for a caviar service, prices start at $99 for 28 gram of kaluga — she sees, in the precious pearls, a worthy indulgence. “People enjoying our caviar selection are eager to indulge in a delicious meal with family and friends,” she says, “after a challenging and isolating few years.”