Extremism in defense of tastiness is no vice.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Champagne, Caviar, and Pancakes (Two Different Ones)

God from the mount of Sinai, whose grey top

Shall tremble, he descending, will himself

In thunder and loud trumpets' sound

Ordain it caviar

-Paradise Lost

At least I think that's what Milton wrote.

In the haute cuisine pantheon, and much more so in general perception, the image caviar evokes is one of wealth and opulence that no other food can match. 400 lb railroad barons in top hats and three-piece suits cavort with Romanov tsaristas, British super spies, and Hercule Poirot. Between exchanging Fabergé eggs and solving murders on the Trans-Siberian Railway, they down the legendary roe with gold-inlaid nacre spoons. Or something like that.

With a friend moving to Belarus this week, and a tin of generously given Osetra just waiting to be eaten (thanks Dave!), last night seemed a perfect opportunity to indulge my McDuckian appetites. Now, I've had Osetra before, as a garnish with seafood dishes, and on a tiny blin as part of an amuse, but I've never done a traditional caviar service with mountains of blini, separated hard-cooked egg, finely diced onions, and sour cream. We bought some nice bubbly (I wanted vodka as well, but in a nightmarish turn more appropriate to Gogol, my friend and her Belorussian husband apparently don't care for the stuff) and prepared to make some blini.

Sure, we've all heard the stories from cookbooks and expats: blini are ordinary, everyday fare, and they're really not very different from pancakes, or from the liquid batter treats cooked on flat surfaces the world over.

Bullshit. I knew the truth. To me, and I imagine to most Americans, blini are supposed to be an exotic specialty, a rumored delicacy from beyond the iron curtain, something befitting the mythical glory of fish eggs, to be enjoyed only by Party insiders and occasional Westerners made rich through the treasonous sale of nuclear technology. Surely there was some exotic craft to their construction, a state secret that, if exposed would be the bane of Parisian crêperies and American Waffle Houses alike. The Reich's Spätzle hadn't stood a chance, but I would be ready.

I prepared by making the humble pancake. Flour, baking powder, salt. Milk, egg, and maybe a little sugar. It was simple, but I felt I needed to be prepared for what awaited me...

The blini came together in a flurry of movements befitting a Strangelove-esque symphony. Like Baryshnikov and Kolpakova, flour danced with salt! Like Peter Sellers and Peter Sellers, milk and egg played off of each other in a harmony of insane flavors! Sugar was still optional.

Okay, so there was some yeast in the process, but what the hell? The taste and texture was slightly different, but was a pancake with yeast the best the one-time Evil Empire had to offer? It saddened me to admit it, but fifty years in a fallout shelter capped off by an emergence into a post-nuclear wasteland where the secrets were mine and mine alone wouldn't have been worth it. (The mutant cows and cool clothing might have made it worth while, of course--but I digress.) At the end, the blini were good, but, in that most American of blunders, I had turned them into something they weren't--and for the record, the crêpe is still my pan-cooked batter of choice.

What, then, of the caviar? The quality was immediately apparent, with that smooth, salty, buttery flavor that aficionados love. Served on the toasty blini, the condiments brought out a range of contrasts in texture and flavor, and it was interesting to try them in varied combination. The sour cream, I thought, was the best counterpoint, its thick, sour, creaminess, playing off of the crisp saltiness of the eggs. The wine complimented both, and I loved the interplay of the roe, cream, and our rich, sweet asti. Crème fraîche may have worked even better.

The truth, though, is that I preferred the caviar as I had had it before. With its strong, distinct flavors, I preferred it as a sparkling, elegant accent rather than a star unto itself. Alone and unaccompanied, the Osetra seemed to me too much a bludgeon of flavor, no matter how refined, but with condiments, it seemed a lily painted with ingredients less interesting than itself. As a crisp, salty, nuanced compliment to another finished dish, I think caviar achieves its acme.

Then again, maybe we just needed some Russian Standard.


Dave said...

Glad to see that the stuff finally was consumed! And in the company of friends, no less. But the dislike of vodka (even Русский Стандарт!) makes me ask: sure, you have made friends with many foodies, but have you ever befriended a gastronome your equal?

Still, glad to see the stuff was finally consumed.

Brian said...

Thanks again, Dave. It was a lot of fun to do the traditional thing, and you were (unbeknown to yourself) the fourth one there, like the ghost of the Anti-Jacob Marley.

As for your question, I think you flatter me too much. But then, flattery will get you everywhere with me. Andres definitely knows his stuff and is one hell of a cookie. Drunkenly discussing women and and passing recipes with him at parties made for a few great evenings. As far as dining companions go, our dinner at L'Etoile will be hard to beat: there's nothing better than going all out for an amazing meal with someone who appreciates the same.

Why do you guys both live in New York now?