I look up at the concrete steps of the bare stairwell that reveals little about the venue ahead save for the understated but elegant signage on the external wall. All I know is that an enigma awaits upstairs to be introduced. French perhaps, or maybe Russian. Dark, decadent and delectable I heard. The ingredients for love at first bite. For centuries, caviar has captivated people, holding a mythical and elite status even as far back as 4th BC during the time of Aristotle. The Greek philosopher recorded his glowing opinions of it, detailing how banquets welcomed this delicacy with great fanfare.
The ancient Persians, who believed in its medicinal powers, also have deep historical links to caviar, being the culture credited for the preparation method that involves salting the fish roe. Even the word itself is widely acknowledged to be derived from the Persian khav-yar or khaya-dar which means having eggs or egg-bearing fish.
It was Russian tsars who launched caviar into the world of luxury. When its refined reputation spread to Europe, the royal houses there too began enjoying the same privilege as the Russian imperial palaces. In England, King Edward II was so enamoured that he declared all sturgeons (from which caviar is produced) as ‘royalfish’, thereby making this species the personal property of the monarch, a law in the United Kingdom passed since the 1300s and remains to this day.
Fast forward to today and caviar is associated less with royalty and more with gastronomy thanks in part to maturing palates and increased spending power.
The upper floor of the stairwell is home to Poseidon Caviar and Seafood Bar, a snug little space that can almost be mistaken for being work in progress, set within the affluent surrounds of Desa ParkCity, Kuala Lumpur.
Unapologetically bare, the concrete walls and flooring are intentionally devoid of design or diversion, except for a big splash of vibrant wall tiles resembling fish scales. Large glass panels lend an airy feel while display units hold bottles of wine and tins of caviar. The bar counter area appears as mission control, overlooking the whole space.
But what captures my attention are six large round tins clearly marked with the word ‘CAVIAR’. But they’re all empty.
This salty delicacy cannot linger too long on a table because every change of temperature affects the caviar; it must be stored between 0 to 20 Celsius and served on ice to prevent it from becoming mushy, and consumed as soon as possible.
So caviar does not wait for latecomers. Like a diva, guests have to wait for caviar.
While waiting, I take the opportunity to solicit some insights from the co-owner of Poseidon Caviar & Seafood Bar to enlighten me on this often misunderstood, delicate luxury. Sabahan Patrick Devendran explains: “In order for it to be called caviar, the eggs have to come from a sturgeon, a type of fish. Just like how champagne can only be called so if it comes from the Champagne region. So when you eat sushi, you might get the tiny fish roe called ebiko but that’s flying fish roe.”
The definition of true caviar is reaffirmed by the man who will shortly be conducting the caviar-tasting session. “Caviar only comes from sturgeon,” asserts Remi Montariol, a brand ambassador of Kaviari, a French caviar brand whose tins are sold at Poseidon. “You cannot say salmon caviar —
it doesn’t exist. It would be salmon roe, trout roe and so on. This can sometimes be a misleading part due to lack of knowledge.”
So, not all fish roe is caviar. Not even ‘Greek caviar’, a term bestowed on Bottarga, a traditional fish roe delicacy from Greece, produced not from the eggs of sturgeon but from the female Flathead mullet.
As a purveyor of fine foods, Poseidon Caviar & Seafood Bar has been hosting educational caviar-tasting sessions and events over the past several months to encourage appreciation — efforts which are clearly reaping rewards. From a tiny order of six cans in mid-2017, the order swelled at year end to 72 cans!
INFAMOUS PRICE TAG
Ask the average person what they think about caviar and they’ll probably sneer about its exorbitant price tag and association with food snobbery. But there’s good reason why a tin of these tiny eggs can cost somewhere between RM200 and RM3,000. And it has little to do with ingenious branding, historical rates or the size of the sturgeon, which incidentally can grow up to five metres long. Caviar is notoriously difficult to produce, involving a complicated and slow process, sometimes taking up as much time as it does to raise a child and witness their college graduation.
“It’s not someone saying these eggs are bigger or this tastes better so we have to make it more expensive,” maintains Montariol in his thick French-accented English. “One sturgeon may take five years to produce eggs; another sturgeon may take 25 years.
That means five times longer than the first sturgeon so the feeding and overall maintenance make this type of caviar more expensive. Mother Nature makes this thing quite well because the caviar that takes 25 years is better than the one taking five years!”
That particular slow-producing caviar comes from the slow-to-mature Beluga sturgeon, widely acknowledged to be the best of the best. As the rarest of all, Beluga caviar is therefore the most prized, commanding the highest price, hence its reputation as the black gold of gastronomy.
A tin can cost the same as a cheap flight to London — and I know which one I’d choose to spend my money on.
Although the best caviar is a matter of preference, experts say quality is determined by handling and a number of other factors besides maturity, namely thetexture of the eggs, the colour and depth of flavour.
HOW TO EAT CAVIAR
There is no red carpet or uplifting classical music to mark the arrival of tonight’s stars, though like paparazzi, my fellow guests and I begin snapping pictures of the six small tins lined in a row, each containing different caviar. Each tin is poised on a bed of ice crystals within the previously empty large tins. One by one, the Kaviari brand ambassador gently flips open the lids as we all instinctively huddle closer to the table for a better look at the contents. My eyes squint at the sight of small glistening beads, as dark as midnight.
“Take it fresh and put it just here,” says the Frenchman showing the back of a closed hand, before continuing,”...because your body is 370 so it takes 5-10 seconds to get the caviar back to room temperature.
Then the main thing is to roll the caviar between your tongue and palate to see if you get the pop, the taste, and everything.”
The pop? Montariol is referring to a very subtle sensation, similar perhaps to the gentle burst of a soft bubble. The absence of a pop could suggest that the eggs are not cold enough.
I learn that the six tins are lined up in a sequence from most affordable to most luxurious. Each tin holds caviar from a different species of sturgeon, beginning with Transmontanus and concluding with Beluga. On my turn, I eagerly offer my closed hand with the base of the thumb facing upwards and watch as the expert carefully uses a wooden spoon (never a metallic spoon) to place an icy cold dollop from the first tin onto my skin.
With the essential Insta-bound hand photos snapped, the exotic treat is then slurped up. A salty flavour permeates instantly as the tiny black pearls spread over my tongue before sliding down my throat. Without a pop. The subsequent samplings proceed in a similar manner except that the salty flavours and aromas vary with surprising distinctiveness. More briny, more pungent, less pungent, less briny.
Then at last... the Beluga finale, a more refined performance comprising delicate flavours and a longer mouthfeel.
It’s a classy and confident caviar. But I’m crestfallen as the pop escapes me again. Was my technique wrong? Did I leave the roe on my hand for too long while taking photos? Was I just oblivious to the subtlety of the pop? As it is considered impolite to eat more than one or two spoonfuls of caviar, even with ample quantities available, I quietly resolve to find another tasting opportunity another day.
You don’t always have to be at a fine dining restaurant or in a first-class inflight cabin to savour caviar. Purchasing a tin for private consumption means that you can enjoy it at home. Experts recommend buying a 30g tin for two people; however at Poseidon, you can also find some caviar types in 15g tins, ideal for beginners. “Being half the usual size means the starting price is only RM130,” shares Devendran who runs the business with his brother and a childhood friend. “Everyone used to sell a 30g can at RM200-300. But people were afraid in case they didn’t like it. So whatever isn’t up to standard, or if a customer isn’t happy with it, we do allow for refunds and returns.”
While it’s tempting for novices to lower their risks and costs by purchasing just one type of caviar, Montariol recommends tasting a minimum of three to better understand the differences. As an entrylevel caviar, Transmontanus is popular for its easygoing nature, followed by either Ossetra or Kristal for some complexity, and rounding up with the superior Beluga.
Tasting sessions are enjoyable for gourmands or simple foodies, so I’m sold on the idea. And it’s not just because Montariol revealed that the caviar tester “...probably eats 500g of caviar a day and his skin is perfect because caviar is very good for the skin!”
That nugget of information might be a motivating factor to purchase caviar. But like a fish to water, caviar and I have found genuine compatibility. I can foresee a future together, perhaps with serving elements like blinis (Russian pancakes), potatoes, hen eggs or very small, thinly-sliced baguette. We just need to work together a little harder on the pop.