When I asked Ira Goller, owner of Murray’s Sturgeon in New York, what kind of caviar he would eat if he had the choice, he stopped for a second and said, “You mean, if I’m paying? Then I’d go for sevruga.” Gerald Stein, president of Miami-based Stone Hill, which sells Iron Gate caviar, prefers osetra. “I think it’s the most flavorful of all the caviars,” he said.

Notice any name missing? In this new go-go era, when the Dow Jones Average seems as limitless as the personal fortune of Bill Gates and secretaries with stock options are suddenly becoming millionaires, beluga caviar remains a symbol of status. For many, it is the only caviar.

But the cognoscenti know better. To them, sevruga and osetra caviars are just as satisfying–and at a fraction of the price. “Those who don’t know want beluga,” says Goller. “Those who do know will take sevruga for themselves, but use beluga if they want a splash for a party.”

Beluga, osetra and sevruga are all types of sturgeon found in the Caspian Sea. Beluga is the largest of the three, weighing up to 1,000 pounds at maturity. Because it takes a beluga sturgeon 20 years to lay eggs, beluga caviar isn’t terribly plentiful. Thus, the law of supply and demand dictates that it should cost more, and it does: $50 to $80 an ounce.

It can take up to 13 years for osetra sturgeon to reach maturity and their full weight of up to 600 pounds (though they usually do not exceed 400 pounds). Since they produce eggs sooner than beluga sturgeon, osetra sturgeon eggs are more plentiful, and cheaper–about half the price of beluga.

At a few dollars an ounce less than osetra, sevruga is the least expensive caviar. A sevruga sturgeon produces eggs when it is between seven and 10 years old, and weighs no more than 100 pounds. But surely beluga caviar must taste better? Not necessarily. Goller laid out jars of beluga, osetra and sevruga caviar in the back of his venerable and spotless shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I tasted a spoonful of each, twice. And even knowing what I was eating, I preferred the sevruga. “That’s not so surprising because sevruga and beluga are similar in taste and color,” Goller said.

The color of sevruga, like beluga, may range from silvery gray to charcoal or darker. Beluga eggs are the largest and sevruga are the smallest; top-quality versions of both are pleasantly saline, with a few mineral or metallic hints and a rich, eggy or buttery (caviar purveyors prefer the latter term) flavor. However, sevruga will often have a stronger seafood character than beluga.

Osetra eggs may be as light as deep gold, but more often are a brownish gray. While the general rule for quality caviar is to seek the largest egg for its type, and the lightest color–“bigger, lighter, better,” says Goller–I didn’t find this always to be true. For example, in tasting some rare golden osetra with M. David Magnotta, owner of Caviar Russe, a caviar retail and wholesale operation in New York City, I found that color (not to mention rarity) doesn’t always equal flavor. Samplings of a dozen or so other sevruga and osetra caviars confirmed this.

Magnotta prefers osetra to other caviars because it offers a much broader range of flavors. “Some have nutty nuances; others have richness; others are pale. I love them all,” he says. Further proof that lighter isn’t always better was the dark osetra I tasted at Caviar Russe. This caviar from the Sea of Azov had a wonderful balance of richness and delicacy. (The Sea of Azov is connected by tributaries to the Caspian. All sturgeon are caught in tributaries of the Caspian Sea, where the fish go to spawn. It is the specific terroirs of these tributaries that give the eggs a particular color, texture and flavor.)

Beyond size and color, eggs should be solid and uniform, not broken or bleeding. And that condition should exist all the way through the tin or jar. The eggs should also have a clean sea-breeze smell. The best Caspian caviar will be labeled “malossal,” meaning “little salt.”

While beluga eggs were traditionally graded for size, osetra and sevruga never had such a grading system, although quality varies as much with them as with beluga. So a reputable caviar purveyor is essential. If someone offers you a price that looks too good, it probably is.

“Despite the fact that there is less caviar than there was 10 years ago, there are many more dealers,” Goller says. “I get calls every week from people who say, ‘I have 100,000 pounds of sevruga. Do you wan t some?’ I say ‘no.’ You can’t buy an Infiniti for the price of a Saturn.”

Several years ago, an American dealer was arrested for trying to pass off caviar from American sturgeon–which is different from Caspian sturgeon–as sevruga. And it is not uncommon for someone to sell real sevruga as beluga.

There are legitimate sevruga and osetra substitutes, however, in the same way that California sparkling wine is a substitute for Champagne. San Francisco-based Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, formerly known as California Sunshine Fine Foods, sells osetra caviar from the Amur River, which separates Russia and China. I found these eggs–which were medium dark gray in color and from a different type of sturgeon than the Caspian kind–to be rich and pleasantly saline, but a bit too unctuous.

Company owner Mats Engstrom has been pioneering farmed sturgeon in California’s Sacramento delta. While these pewter-gray osetra eggs were nicely separate and rather large, they lacked much depth of flavor. Several companies, Tsar Nicoulai Caviar among them, also sell caviar from the hackleback sturgeon that swim in many tributaries of the Mississippi River. Those I tasted from Tsar Nicoulai were small, black and separate, but lacked richness.

When buying caviar, figure on one ounce per person as a normal serving. Fresh caviar should be kept in the coldest part of the refrigerator and topped with gel packs. Melting ice can ruin caviar. An unopened jar of fresh caviar will last a week to 10 days if well chilled.

Sevruga and osetra should be served the same way as beluga, with as little embellishment as possible. Good caviar doesn’t need anything more than a mother-of-pearl spoon. Gold is fine, as is bone, but silver spoons will stain. To avoid double- dipping into a bowl of caviar, provide toast points made from plain white bread. Spoon the caviar onto the bread, then scrape it off with your teeth–and throw away the bread. One interesting serving suggestion from Goller is to put a dab of caviar on a thin slice of cucumber.

Still, Goller makes up caviar trays with chopped egg yolks and whites, onions, lemons and sour cream for the caviar parties he caters. As he puts it, “People put ketchup, onions and mushrooms on steak, don’t they?”

How to Get Caviar Online

While caviar is generally available throughout the year, the holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s is the peak period, and many dealers offer special prices. Normally, expect to pay $25 to $30 an ounce for sevruga, and a few dollars more for an ounce of osetra. The price per ounce goes down for larger quantities. At Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, farmed osetra caviar is $25, hackleback sturgeon caviar is $33 for 2 ounces, and sevruga is $24.

Here are some reliable mail-order sources:

  • Caviar Russe (800) 692-2842
  • Caviarteria (800) 422-8427, in California, (800) 287-9773
  • Dean & Deluca (800) 221-7714
  • Murray’s Sturgeon (212) 724-2650
  • Petrossian (800) 828-9241
  • Stone Hill (800) 672-2842
  • Tsar Nicoulai Caviar (800) 952-2842
  • Urbani USA (800) 281-2330
  • Zabar’s (800) 697-6301 (outside New York City), (212) 496-1234 (within New York City)

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