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Caviar Doesn’t Have to Cost a Fortune

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If you haven’t made reservations for New Year’s Eve by now, you’re probably out of time. I nearly wrote “out of luck,” but stopped myself. I’ve always thought people who eat at home that night are the lucky ones.

You’ll have more fun for less money if you celebrate one year’s ending and another’s beginning on some night other than Dec. 31. Restaurants are still dressed for the holidays the week after Christmas, but reservations are easier to get than they will be on New Year’s Eve, and you won’t have to eat from a set menu that’s arguably fancy and inarguably overpriced.

Table are even easier to come by in the first week of January, when most of the city seems to be suffering from an extended hangover.

Now I admit that it may be easier to invite people to a birthday dinner held a few days after the event than it is to convince them to celebrate New Year’s Eve with you on January 3. Perhaps in the future, all your friends will see the logic of this. For now, though, you may need to trick them. And while there are hundreds of ways to trick people into believing that an ordinary night is a holiday, nothing beats caviar.

Your friends may tell you they can’t afford caviar with dinner. There is an easy answer to this one. Split a caviar pie at Knickerbocker Bar & Grill. The Knickerbocker is a neighborhood chophouse on University Place with Hirschfeld drawings on the wall, a piano in the front and a practiced habit of ignoring the latest trends. There may be a trendy caviar pie on TikTok by now, but the one at the Knickerbocker is the mid-century American standard that might have come from Pat Nixon’s recipe box. It starts with a base of chopped eggs and mayonnaise. Above that you get a layer of minced shallots, a white blanket of cream cheese blended with sour cream, and finally a glittery black topping of caviar. You can spread it on toast or just eat it with a fork, like a regular pie. The price: $21.

Or you could have your budget-minded friend meet you on Orchard Street for a bite at Russ & Daughters Cafe. For $21, you can get a plate of latkes that some regard as a platonic ideal of latkedom, served with crème fraîche and a sticky spoonful of wild salmon roe. Here your friend might object that the salmon eggs aren’t, properly speaking, real caviar, a word that is reserved for roe from one of the sturgeon species. Of course your friend is right, but real caviar costs money. The supremely soft, patiently stirred scrambled eggs with baerii sturgeon caviar, one of the best things you can eat on the Lower East Side, costs $135. (With paddlefish, probably the most convincing of the un-caviars, the eggs are $85.)

Russ & Daughters is one of many restaurants around Manhattan that will bring you a packed, chilled tin of caviar with garnishes on the side — in this case, crème fraîche and blini. Simplicity is the appeal, and there is a lot to be said for eating caviar straight out of the jar, like a bear with a pot of honey.

Of course, you could go broke this way before you’ve had a decent dinner. Consider, instead, a caviar potato from Caviar Kaspia, in the Mark Hotel, which operates as a sort of Upper East Side embassy for the original, in Paris.

More substantial than eggs or blini, the potatoes at Caviar Kaspia are baked twice, the second time with crème fraîche and chives. The servers will then trowel as much caviar over the top as you’re prepared to pay for. For $95, you get 30 grams of white sturgeon caviar; 80 grams of premium ossetra bring the tab to $540.

Sometimes, though, even the dedicated caviar hound just wants a sandwich. Le Bernardin’s lounge has one, and you can sashay in without a reservation and have it in your hands minutes later. Sold, for $120, as a smoked-salmon croque monsieur, it is closer to a grilled cheese made with Gruyère. In the center is a slender slice of smoked salmon and next to that a layer of ossetra, the gray-green color of the sea when the sky is overcast. Like many caviar dishes, Le Bernardin’s croque monsieur sounds like overkill. But it’s not.

Wherever you go and whatever you order, I hope you enjoy the last days of 2023 and the first week of 2024. I’ll be back in January with more ideas on where to eat.