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In a supermarket, the express lanes are devoted to shoppers purchasing ten items or less. At Russ and Daughters, the incredibly busy 91-year-old lox shop on East Houston Street, (during the holidays, you can wait an hour for herring) the city's sole caviar express line sets up only for the last few days of the year.
Visitors to this unadorned metal counter seem either like deer caught in the headlights or world-renowned caviar experts. Those in the first category are easy to spot, and often receive a remedial education (beginning with "how much do you want to spend?") as soon as they show their clueless faces. But thanks to a U.S. embargo against beluga eggs harvested in the Caspian Sea or the Black Sea, even some of the experts are bewildered these days. Anyone who has access to fancy roe will quickly develop a taste for it, and discern their own preferences in terms of the size, taste, and texture of caviar. But when faced with unfamiliar eggs, in a blind taste-test, their confidence can vanish just as fast.
A fur-clad older woman came in mid-day on Wednesday, seeking guidance from her friend Mark Russ Federman, the grandson of the original Russ. Mark is now semi-retired, though still deeply involved and present, especially during the holidays. He told the woman without hesitation that the American Osetra (from California) was the best caviar on the market today. Upon tasting it, she was unsure the eggs were sufficiently firm and asked him repeatedly what he would do in her position. Mark encouraged her to trust him. "I'm a scholar in this," he said. She replied "Me tooI was born with a caviar spoon in my mouth. And don't forget, I knew your father!" Mark, unfazed by her chastising, pleaded with her: "Don't be in such pain!" The woman paused and explained, "But I am in pain, because it's a big responsibility." In the end, she trusted the scholar and took 125 grams of the Osetra, for $269.
This year, all three of the caviar options at Russ & Daughters are American. Besides the Osetra, there are two significantly less expensive options: Hackleback roe and Paddlefish roe, both priced at $79.95 for 125 grams. Jose Reyes, who became Russ & Daughters' official caviar packer in 1985, does not actually like the stuff, but certainly does have a way with it. The joke about him varieseither Mark trained him because he knew he wouldn't sneak tastes, or Reyes perfected his craft with a threat that he would be forced to eat every egg he broke. After putting in some time timidly packing tins myself (with a plastic fork, as is their method), I finally got to taste some caviar.
Josh Tupper, Mark's nephew, who has been gradually taking over the family business over the last few years, gave me a taste-test. Paddlefish, a cousin of sturgeon, has small, firm, pearly-gray eggs ("sevruga look-alikes") with a pronounced but pleasant taste of the sea (they do not like to use the word "fishy"). Hackleback caviar, which is wild, has a slightly less firm texture and a milder flavor. These both tasted good to me, "like caviar," I said. I hadn't tasted caviar in a year. Then Josh handed me a tiny plastic spoon (the kind you find at an ice cream parlor) with a few of the Osetra eggs on it. These are much larger and less uniform in colorranging from a mud-brown to a golden, mustard color. The eggs burst pleasantly, releasing a taste that instantly put the others to shame. Instead of a generic oil, salt, and fish flavor, there was an astonishing nuttiness. (That characteristic is so overused in food talk that it is tempting to avoid, but nutty is the only word for this tastemild and intensely rich at the same time.)
Russ & Daughters' website offers guidance to overwhelmed caviar shoppers, including the classic description of what caviar should taste like: "Savoring a good caviar is like having the sea kiss your tongue." This image has always made me feel a little weird. Anyway, the American Osetra I tried was better than that. But Josh warned, "From tin to tin, they're very different. Our American Osetra might be very different than someone else's." In other words, get on the caviar express line.