06 Feb Caviar Dreams
by Suzanne Podhaizer
You know that you’re deeply in love when you have possession of something that tantalizes and inflames you, and you discover that you desire to share it with another person. I came to this realization the first time that my husband and I ate dinner together. We were at Smokejacks, a restaurant in Burlington, Vermont that is known for its “bold American food.” With funky décor and creative cuisine that makes excellent use of local ingredients, it is the kind of place that is perfect for testing out a person’s culinary sensibilities — which is exactly what I was doing.
The first hint that our dinner together would be more than a mere date came when we were both enticed by the same items on the menu — the appetizer of nearly raw tuna with cucumber “noodles,” the smelliest French washed-rind cheese, the homemade lychee soda. We breathlessly discussed the flavor combinations and whether or not we should share or order our own entrées. In the end we shared, and something about sharing this enticing meal meant more than the fact that I got to have the rare pleasure of consuming pork and duck on the same night. For a few hours I cared more about the experience of eating with another person than I did about the pleasure of the eating itself.
Once we were living together and sharing meals every night, I surprised myself by offering him some of the things that I generally covet — crackling pieces of skin from a roasted chicken, bites of bloody steak with sizzling brown fat at the edge, the cream skimmed from the top of the whole-milk yogurt. And he did the same, serving me the rarest pieces of lamb, making my eggs Benedict with the perfectly oval poached eggs while his eggs straggled across the plate, placing the biggest piece of decadent Humboldt Fog cheese in front of me instead of himself. We never discussed this strange phenomenon in which we shared the things that we ourselves desired — it was understood.
In the summer of 2005, we traveled to California for a whirlwind culinary tour of the San Francisco area (other people called it our honeymoon). The first full day we were there, we traveled from our B&B in Berkeley to the Ferry Building in San Francisco. The Ferry Building is a food lover’s Eden, and temptations abound. After touring the famous farmer’s market that was taking place outside, we entered the lofty interior of the Ferry Building, and began to think about our first meal of the day. But how does one decide where to go first when surrounded by a raw bar, a chocolatier, a tearoom, and a store that sells exotic mushrooms (including the elusive truffle)?
At my prompting, we walked up and down until we located Tsar Nicoulai, a caviar café. For some reason, eating caviar at ten in the morning seemed much more natural than noshing on raw oysters — that would have to wait until at least eleven. We squeezed into the small space available at the bar, our legs and arms touching out of necessity as much as from affection, and ordered a caviar sampler. The five small mounds of shiny roe, some imported from Iran and Romania, sat atop miniscule blini. At another time in my life, sharing this delicacy would have been unthinkable, but on that day it seemed like a crucial part of the experience. We tasted the caviars in order, the simplest to the most complex, and after each bite we exclaimed about how well the caviar paired with the buckwheat and the crème fraîche, analyzed the level of salinity, and discussed important points like whether or not “pineapple” was actually a valid aroma to detect in caviar.
The next afternoon we exchanged vows and rings, after which we strolled out of our hotel into the California heat and slowly made our way to the French Laundry. Once we were seated in the cool dining room, our legs touching underneath the table (this time out of affection and not for lack of room), we each ordered the nine-course Chef’s tasting menu, eagerly anticipating a meal that included foie gras, truffles, aged balsamic, oysters, and caviar.
The parade of dishes began with Gruyere gougères — small puffs of fragrant hot air, then cones of smoked salmon with red onion crème fraîche, which came in their own special stands. As the apparatus for the salmon cones was cleared away, we waited in anticipation for the much-discussed “oysters and pearls,” a “sabayon of pearl tapioca with Malpeque Oysters and Osetra Caviar.” As we scooped up the pearls of caviar and tapioca in unison, our rings flashing each time we raised or lowered our mother-of-pearl spoons, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that whenever we have shared the best part of a piece of meat, the last spoonful of a decadent dessert, or the runniest part of a piece of cheese, what we have really been doing is quietly saying, “I love you.”
Photo: Kelly Cline
Suzanne is a freelance food writer from Burlington, Vermont, and a columnist for The Gilded Fork. Her favorite activities include cooking with local meat, cheese, and produce, and snapping up all of the exciting culinary texts from local used-book stores before anybody else can get their hands on them.