January 11, 2016 | BITE: My Journal

Caviar Russe: Dancing on the Edge

 Blue Fin tuna on avocado with soy umami from Caviar Russe’s tasting menu.
Blue Fin tuna on avocado with soy umami from Caviar Russe’s tasting menu.

          Unless you’re into dancing on the edge of the abyss, this is probably not the best time to consider caviar. Sorry, I didn’t post this BITE pre-apocalypse.  It began innocently enough before Christmas when the market was looking up. Wilfred, always game to go for broke, wondered why we’d not tried Caviar Russe.

          “I’ve never heard anyone recommending it,” I began. “It’s wildly expensive.”

 
I thought it said “macaroni,” but macarons stuffed caviar are okay, too.

          Still, I had to admit that given some of our recent sushi strikes and our pricey outing at Momofuko Ko, caviar didn’t seem so much of a moonwalk.  That’s how I persuaded myself to join in this extravagant lark. We agreed to visit Petrossian too, so we could compare.

 
Twenty five grams each of the caviar classics ($225) solves the cash issue, but not the need for caviar.

          Yes, Caviar Russe, “the jewelbox boite,” is on Madison Avenue, but it’s a slightly déclassé one flight up. A guard stands under the narrow canopy at street level to open the door and summon an elevator, a not very elegant lift. He presses the button. Three men in dark suits are waiting as the door opens. Even though Wilfred has reserved, their surprise seems to say, “Oh my God, a customer.” Were they expecting a side of beef?  I watch them adjust to my reality.

 
Behind me, in my booth is a Russian folk art painting that gets reflected in the mirror opposite, too.

          The dining room is all dressed up with outsize Bernardaud service plates and Russian folk art. And it’s empty. I settle into a booth, and have time to warm up to a panic over the prices before Wilfred arrives. “Caspian Sea imported Almas Osetra is $595 for 25 grams,” I hiss as he reaches for the menu. “I think 25 grams is an espresso spoon.”

 
I began to get excited about Caviar Russe’s kitchen when this exquisite sliver of kampachi arrived.

          He suggests we read from the bottom up.  “Complete selection of all our caviars by the spoon, $475,” I report. “We’d need two of those. And then we will want to eat,” I remind him, checking out the ‘Crudo’ offerings. I scan the tasting menu -- three courses $95, ten courses, $235.  “Notice the $90 supplement for white truffle risotto with porcini.”

 
I don’t know why miso butter, but I had to taste it and then kept spreading it on warm baguette.

          I guess this is why God invented credit cards. It wouldn’t be safe to walk around carrying so much cash. After some study, a few queries of the captain and a martini, Wilfred suggests we share the cut-rate “Classic Caviar Selection” for just $225, order two different $95 three-course dinners (sharing everything, of course) and throw in some a la carte items we can’t live without, like the uni and the raw diver sea scallop with caviar.

 
We both rated the crumbed egg with caviar on Parmesan shavings in Parmesan cream best of show. 

          What I thought was macaroni with caviar turn out to be a cookie, a classic macaron, spelled the French way. A vanilla macaron filled with caviar and a lick of crème fraîche is amusing as an amuse. And an arched curl of kampachi is another miniature prelude to the caviar trio.

          The place feels less like “The Shining” when a young man arrives with a bouquet of flowers and is settled into the next booth waiting for his date. He plans to propose, our captain whispers.

 
How gracious I am! I gave Wilfred the 3rd Kusshi oyster with Granny Smith apple in oyster foam.

          As I suspected, 25 grams is just a tease for two. There are sides of sour cream and chive just in case we’re not purists, and small warm blinis, toast, and slices of cooked potato to pile the fish eggs on. Well, pile is too rash. Let’s say dribble. Even before they have a chance to cool, the little crepes, surprisingly chewy, are quickly replaced by warm ones.

 
I choose an icy vodka to drink with my caviar.

          I take the last of the Siberian with my finger and urge Wilfred to mop up the five pearls of Osetra. I’m feeling faux riche -- never rich enough -- as warm rolls and butter arrives with a mother-of-pearl butter spreader: Miso butter and brie cheese butter, the waiter informs us.

 
I’m glad I invested in this marvelous uni dish before my 401K got shriveled.

          But then, the $45 cluster of sweet California uni in dashi appears with nasturtium leaves and sorrel.  No economizing here. A waiter pours soy-based sauce atop a tower of Blue Fin tuna sitting on an avocado base. “Umami,” he murmurs. And that’s luscious too.

          Three Kusshi oysters on coconut foam with Granny Smith apple and more nasturtiun leaves is no challenge to us. “Take it, Wilfred.” (I have already accepted the extra sea urchin.)  Salmon roe in a rice cracker seems to be an extra. 

 
Uni again? Why not? Here, the sumptuous creature swims in yuzu foam.

          Sea urchin swimming in a yuzu foam seems to be a gift, too. “I think they know who you are,” Wilfred says, as he exclaims over his half of the crumbed soft-boiled egg from the tasting menu. It rides in on islands of melted Parmesan cheese in a Parmesan cream under a generous tiara of caviar.  You could come for the thrill of just this dish on the $95 tasting and not feel guilty about spending your kid’s college fund.

 
Scallops sit in a briny chowder with cauliflower and celery.

          The house is not stopping now. Scallops in a powerful chowder with roasted tomatoes, cauliflower and celery puree is a gift too. And the truffled risotto I had ruled off-limits. The truffles are especially fragrant, more pungent than most I’ve encountered this season.

 
The black bass is an adventure in black with trompettes, blackberries, licorice, and beet dust.

          Waiters are hovering over two more duos at tables across the room by the time we meet our black bass, yet another fussy still life, but tasty too, with black garlic powder, black trompette mushrooms, warm blackberries, and sprigs of celery sprouts. There is a last minute splash of licorice. That is dehydrated beet powder on the plate, if you wonder. I asked.

 
Somehow, I finish my share of dry aged rib eye with sunchokes, onion soubise and a Bordelaise.

          I can barely manage my share of the dry-aged rib eye with sun chokes and onion soubise and Bordelaise rivulets. I am sure we did not order dessert, but that arrives too. Caramelized tomato with pastry cream, toast ice cream and dehydrated tarragon powder on the plate. I might be annoyed by these powdered lawn cuttings, if, somehow, it didn’t all come together so well.

 
A little tarragon powder can’t spoil caramelized tomato with pastry cream and toast ice cream.

          Warm madeleines, looking just like Daniel’s, are accompanied by half a dozen chocolate bonbons. I sign off on my $335 half of the bill, not minding at all because so much of what I’ve eaten is so good. But even I am not sure I should be trusted, considering the seduction.


Warm madeleines in a napkin bunting come with chocolate bonbons.

 538 Madison Avenue between 54th and 55th streets. 2nd floor. 212 980 5908. Monday through Saturday noon to 10 pm. Sunday noon to 4 pm.

***

Petrossian with the Defiant Ones

 Seared Scottish langoustines with pickled peach balls in a wine broth at Petrossian.
Seared Scottish langoustines with pickled peach balls in a wine broth at Petrossian.

          I loved the fantasy of Petrossian in 1984 when the two Petrossian brothers opened it in the handsome, landmark Alwyn Court. The flappers with dogs in Art Deco bronzes on the windowsills fascinated. There was an illuminated marble bar with Erte etchings engraved on the mirror. And suddenly, it seemed the only way to taste caviar was with a 24-karat gold paddle, like the one I’m holding tonight.

 
Erte’s Art Deco dames preen on the mirror behind Petrossian’s bar.

          I’d not been to Petrossian in decades when the press agent called to say there was a new chef.  The Caspian Sea had long ago run out of sturgeon eggs yet, it seemed that globally-raised swimmers now providing their roe were as expensive as ever.

 
Petrossian’s gorgeous bronzes that I always loved are still here. Too heavy to steal, I guess.

          Ironically, four of us arrived at Petrossian the very same day the Dow did its panicked flight. There were only three tables occupied. That was depressing all by itself. I wondered if they were deniers or defiers, too love-smitten to read the news or fully invested in gold.

 
The four of us share 30 grams of the more modest caviars, plus 50 grams of salmon roe. 

          Even so, Wilfred and our friends were ready for a caviar splurge. Petrossian still has its Art Deco fittings and the golden paddles. We ordered 30 grams each of Transmontanus ($69), Royal Siberian ($91), and Royal Ossetra ($129) -- plus 50 grams of salmon roe ($21), just for fun, served on a silver merry-go-round with crème fraîche in little timbales alongside.

 
These plump, tremulous blinis are the perfect skateboard for caviar at any price.

          Our server said toast and blini would be extra – but the big, soft, warm, tremulous blini and some very pallid toast points did not appear on the bill.  I dropped my portion of each caviar, one by one, on patches of blini, with and without crème fraîche, for comparison. The blini was as luscious as the caviar.

 
“Japanese Tuna Toro” has a tight little foie gras cutlet, Ponzi sauce, and caviar.

          The wait for our starters after the caviar seemed unusually long. Maybe it was our captain’s fault. Maybe, the kitchen’s. My memories of pleasures at Caviar Russe would be tough to follow, even for a veteran like Richard Farnabe, the new chef. (He began his career with ten years under Michelin-starred Jacques Maximin, and worked for Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.) But maybe  ordering just four dishes didn’t give him his best chance.

          There was not much magic in Tuna Toro with caviar, a tight little cutlet of seared foie gras, and dabs of ponzu sauce. I was not moved either by Scottish langoustines with very firm balls of pickled peach in a Jurançon broth.

 
Sea urchin, caviar, and beaucoup lobster. Of course, we’ll have the lobster tagliatelle.

          No way our team could resist lobster tagliatelle with sea urchin and caviar. I might have liked more tagliatelle, but not those slightly tough noodles. For some reason, the claw and the small torso of lobster were impossible to cut with the knife. 

 
The dry-aged NY strip comes with beef marrow and sunchokes as well as truffled pomme soufflé.

          My good mood was restored by the dry aged New York strip served with pomme soufflé and a wonderful tower of beef marrow and sunchokes under a crisp potato disc.  It occurred to me we might have ordered another two or three dishes. But my friends said they’d eaten enough.

 
The hazelnut Napoleon cancels bad memories of wood-infused milk chocolate and wood ice cream. 

          I would not have chosen the milk chocolate ball infused with apple wood escorted by wood ice cream.  I only guessed I would hate wood in my dessert as much as snipped herbs.  The rich hazelnut Napoleon made up for that gaffe. And though the giant pink macaron looked somewhat primitive, combined with perfect raspberries and lychee rose water it was a pleasing finale. Total tab per person, $224.99.

182 West 58th Street corner of Seventh Avenue, 212 245 2214. Monday to Saturday 11:30 am to 11 pm.  Sunday to 10 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11:30 am to 3 pm.

***

Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.

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