Truman Capote claimed the difference between rich and poor was that the rich eat tiny vegetables. He was almost right—it's also that they eat caviar, the most expensive food in the world. You'd think it'd be a hard sell ("a tough roe to hoe"), edible fish eggs at $61 an ounce, but Betsy and Dale Sherrow of Seattle Caviar Company are doing all right. Their Eastlake Avenue store, modeled after Parisian caviar shops, is filled with brut champagne, truffles, and ps, as well as traditional equipment for consuming rare fish eggs. Freshness is a big issue, so serving platters or presentoirs are designed to keep the glistening little piles set in ice. Since caviar tarnishes silver, it's eaten with and served from mother-of-pearl, wood, horn, or crystal. Seattle Caviar Company
2833 Eastlake E, 323-3005
Mon-Fri 10-5:30, Sat 11-5
AE, MC, V, Rover's
2808 E Madison, 325-7442
Tue-Sat 5:30 (no set closing time)
AE, D, MC, V Betsy lines up six tiny jars between us and hands me a little pink plastic sampling spoon like the kind at Baskin-Robbins, though I'd been eyeing the mother-of-pearl ones for sale at the counter ($15). We start with chum salmon eggs, which the Japanese call ikura ($26.50 for 51/3 ounces). I didn't expect much from these pink, pea-sized eggs, having strung more than a few on fish hooks, but when I bite down on the resistant little pearls, I taste delightful bursts of salmon essence, like a hit of 1949 Ballard. Next we try the Montana Golden Whitefish ($6.25/ounce), a small-beaded roe with a clean taste and crisp texture; the Yellowstone River Paddlefish ($18/ounce), with a softer texture, milder flavor, and slightly bitter finish. These are generally used as garnish caviars, but I like them because they are tasty, local, and affordable. I've harbored a prejudice against the black, salty stuff, passed off by dubious caterers, that stains deviled eggs. It's not caviar at all, Betsy explains. It's really lumpfish "Maviar," bottom-fish roe dyed with squid ink. True caviar is from Caspian Sea sturgeon and is categorized by the species. Sevruga ($27/ounce) is the cheapest and most plentiful, though I hesitate to use the word cheap here. The bigger the egg, the higher the price—sevruga is the smallest of the premium caviars and was the favorite of Charles de Gaulle (an old role model of mine). The flavor is lusty and masculine and lingering, not unlike the g鮩ral himself. Betsy serves the next step up, from the "sturgeon in the middle," the osetra ($30/ounce). Where sevruga is robust, osetra is more interesting, complex. It's creamy, the flavor fruity with hints of hazelnuts. I lick my pink spoon and reach for more. Betsy slaps my hand. She opens the good stuff: the beluga ($61/ounce), from the largest, rarest sturgeon that grows to 20 feet and whose eggs take up to 20 years to produce. The flavor is delicate, buttery, more subtle than the others, but less remarkable. Chef Thierry Rautureau of Rover's in Madison Park agrees with me. "It's best," he says, "with a glass of champagne in a bathtub with someone you love." Most of the Sherrows' caviar goes to restaurants like Rover's, where I go to see what else could be done with caviar besides eating it with a spoon. I start with an appetizer that regularly appears on Rautureau's menus: scrambled egg with white sturgeon caviar. An eggshell cut into a tiny cup is filled with eggs scrambled with shallots, garlic, and chives, layered with cr譥 frae, a whisper of lime juice, and a pile of white sturgeon caviar ($25/ounce). The caviar tastes clean like the sea; it fits perfectly with the cream and the scrambled-easy. Rautureau is excited about this tank-farmed caviar, raised near Sacramento. It's the only hope for a domestic caviar, since no sturgeon of egg-bearing age may be taken from US waters. Don't look to aquaculture to bring prices down: Sturgeons need seven years of expensive room and board before bearing eggs. Rover's cuisine is made up of exquisite little heaps. Rautureau sends in one after another, each with a different caviar. I suck up Maine lobster sliced on braised leeks, sauced with lobster mousseline and keluga caviar from the Amur River in China. The buttery roe mediates between the intense but disparate flavors of leek and lobster. Another little heap is nearly all local. Beefy slices of Columbia River sturgeon on mashed potatoes (Rautureau's recipe: a pound of butter, a pound of potatoes) bifurcated by two sauces. The first is clear, complex, bright red, and earthy with beets. It's studded with ikura, shell-bursts of fishness. The second is peach-colored from lobster stock blended with the raw roe of the lowly Puget Sound sea urchin and finished with cr譥 frae and osetra. My companion and I make little cries, overtaken with the giddy helplessness of finding ourselves headlong into the acquisition of yet another taste we can't afford. Caviar is a rarity due to sturgeons' intolerance for modern pollution, the elaborate laws that protect them, and because production is painstaking and costly. The thrashing fish are notoriously hard to handle, sometimes weighing hundreds of pounds. Eggs must be removed quickly for freshness, so the fish is cut under the last caudal fin to sap its strength. It's then ripped open alive for the eggs, with, as the well-known and recently deceased foodie Waverly Root noted, "that unconcern for the feelings of fish which man has consistently shown." Separating the eggs requires meticulous finger work, pushing them through fine mesh and removing unwanted fat and bits of ovary. Then you add salt, 3 percent to 6 percent. Herein lies another delicate problem: more salt, less danger of spoilage; less salt, better taste and higher market price. Iranian caviar is considered the best because it contains the least amount of salt. It's politically embargoed in the US and also banned because its flavor is enhanced with borax, an illegal additive. This causes much grumbling in the champagne flutes of enthusiasts. In saloons before WWI, caviar, like popcorn, was free; its saltiness encouraged patrons to buy more 5-cent beers. As long as there's pollution and Iran remains Iranian, caviar will continue to exist only for those who can afford it, but will also serve as a powerful example for why being rich really is better.