The pandemic has brought a lot of changes to behavior over the past year. How people socialized, traveled, ate, and drank was fundamentally altered as groups huddled indoors looking for indulgences.
And with more disposable income than ever to spend, one of those indulgences happened to be caviar.
Before we dive too deeply into this world, it’s important to understand what caviar is. First, caviar is fish eggs, specifically fish eggs from sturgeon. Think of caviar like champagne (two things that go well together, btw) in that you can’t call something champagne unless it specifically came from the Champagne wine region of France. Similarly, you can’t call fish eggs caviar unless it specifically comes from sturgeon. And like champagne, there are different flavor profiles, styles, colors, etc.
If you see something on a menu that says salmon caviar, you’re eating roe, not sturgeon fish eggs – hence, not caviar.
Second thing to know about caviar is that it’s almost entirely farmed. Sturgeon is a prehistoric fish that dates back 120 million years. Because of over-fishing, wild sturgeon is nearly extinct, so caviar producers have turned to fish farming to ensure a lasting and quality product.
Third thing, not all caviar is created equal. It can take two years just to determine whether a sturgeon is male or female, and another 10 years to get high quality eggs. If you want to know why it costs so much, this is a major reason. Some producers take shortcuts, use chemicals, and try to speed up the process.
“Some people take a shortcut, because there's a period where the sturgeon has to get fasted for some time. And if it doesn’t get fasted correctly then you can taste the fishiness. You can literally taste whatever they fed it,” explained Sean Khaligh from Dorasti Caviar, an incredible caviar producer that specializes in e-commerce products.
Now, pre-pandemic, caviar was already having a moment. Restaurants across Los Angeles were featuring the salty eggs in numerous ways. High-end restaurants like Angler, Spago, Providence, Petrossian, Kato, and the sushi standouts Kiriko and Sushi Zo were all employing the salty, gelatinous spheres to garnish a wide range of dishes.
But during the pandemic, something else happened entirely. What was once a hedonistic restaurant pleasure, turned into a to-go extravagance to recreate a fine-dining experience at home.
“People couldn’t spend money at their favorite restaurants, so they decided to bring their favorite restaurants to them,” said Chris Klapp, general manager of Petrossian Restaurant & Boutique, the gold standard of caviar around the world.
Beyond Petrossian (which, if you haven’t been or ordered from, there’s really not a better option for an in-house caviar experience – maybe in the world), a number of upstarts have joined the fray of caviar purveyors and are doing exciting, innovative, and often less expensive iterations without losing quality.
The number one standout that is currently causing ripples through Los Angeles is Dorasti Caviar. Owned by two Iranian brothers whose father was a caviar impresario back in Iran, Sean and Marcus Khaligh turned the pandemic into a big opportunity.
“When the shutdown happened, people weren’t able to get good food. So, they started ordering online and trying different companies and products. And once people started to try these things, they started to get hooked on it. It just opened a door for us to see how easy and accessible it is,” said Marcus Khaligh from Dorasti.
“We did see a lot of growth in sales in general. Before the pandemic, not as many people bought online than they do now. Lockdowns forced caviar lovers to ‘roll the dice’ online vs. going into the grocery store to buy. And, in our case, we saw a lot of increase in sales because of that and can confidently say we have a very high return customer rate. A handful of companies have seen an increase because of the same reason, but they’re branding caviar as if all caviar is created the same, but they’re providing it at a discounted price,” added Sean Khaligh.
Beyond showing up on restaurant menus and online shops, there are also caviar clubs in the mix. The Caviar Co., based in San Francisco, has memberships in the $500-$1,000 range and has also seen more interest across the board.
“Yes, we have definitely seen a spike in sales! During this time as people are celebrating with their friends and family afar, we have seen an increase of caviar gifts being sent for birthdays, anniversaries, and other celebrations. Our caviar cooler gift sets have been really popular as they include everything you need to indulge in caviar (caviar, blini, creme fraiche, mother of pearl spoon and caviar cooler),” said Petra Bergstein, President and Co-Founder of The Caviar Co.
Online sales have made caviar (slightly) more accessible, and the pandemic merely sped up the process of introducing sturgeon eggs to the masses. And because this is Los Angeles, no food trend would really be complete without a vegan version.
Aside from the excellent caviar-substitute at Crossroads Kitchen (it’s made from kelp), another company has popped up, promising a premium vegan caviar produced in Denmark using seaweed grown naturally off the coast of France. The company is Zeroe Caviar, which has slowly started partnering with high-end restaurants around the city and launching a direct-to-consumer version this June. The “caviar” is made with Agar Agar seaweed extract and is owned by Noah Traisman in addition to some high-profile social media influencers like Remington Nelson, Elsie Hewitt, and Sahara Ray.
“My girlfriend and I were planning a dinner with some investors and I was ordering real caviar. But she’s vegan. So, I did a little research to see if there was a vegan caviar, and I found a bunch online. I ordered almost all of them to see if any were good. None of them were. So, I decided to make my own. And, you know, through some research and some experimentation, we were able to find a recipe that worked really well to establish the right texture, the right aesthetic, and the right flavor profile, that appeal, you know, not only to beginners, but to everybody,” explained Noah Traisman creator and founder of Zeroe Caviar.
When it’s all said and done, caviar is still an expensive habit. There are many imitators and lesser brands that have entered the market offering cheaper products, but almost always with lower quality. If you’re looking for the best caviar in LA, go eat at Petrossian. If you want to find the best direct-to-consumer experience with the highest quality, check out Dorasti. And if you want a plant-based alternative, dabble a bit with Zeroe.
Not all caviar is the same, but with a little research, and a few tastings here and there, you might find yourself riding this trend as it rushes through LA.