A Russian restaurant with an extensive menu, including seven types of caviar, naturally
Michael Deacon samples caviar in Mayfair
EVER SINCE THE classical age, caviar has been a symbol of luxury, the exclusive preserve of the wealthy elite. In 1324, in fact, Edward II decreed that the sturgeon was a ‘royal’ fish, meaning that only he and members of his court were permitted to eat its eggs.
There was one time, though, when caviar wasn’t quite so highly prized.
In the early 1800s, American waters were positively stuffed with sturgeon. Pop in for a dip and you’d be up to your trunks in them. And so, as a result of its easy availability, Americans didn’t take their caviar seriously. They thought of it as a cheap snack. In some bars, remarkably, caviar was served free of charge – the bartenders believing that the caviar’s saltiness would encourage customers to buy more beer.
The caviar that wasn’t scoffed by bored drinkers was exported to Europe – at an absurdly low price. The Europeans, naturally, were delighted. They’d spotted an opportunity. Because while Americans thought nothing of their own caviar, they did value Russian caviar. Russian: that was the good stuff. That was the premium product. So the Europeans simply bought up American caviar on the cheap, slapped a label on it saying ‘Russian caviar’ – and sold it straight back to the Americans at a handsome profit. What wasn’t flogged to the Americans was flogged to other Europeans, again
with the same fake Russian label. In 1900, a report estimated that 90 per cent of the ‘Russian’ caviar sold in Europe was actually American.
You’ve got to admire it. The entrepreneurial spirit in action.
Long time ago now, of course. I’m sure we can trust our labelling today. This week’s restaurant – Babel House in Mayfair, London – specialises in dishes from the Black Sea. And so naturally it sells caviar. Seven different types of it, in fact. Pike caviar (£20); royal baerii (£25); Russian oscietra (£30); imperial caviar (£40); royal oscietra (£40); royal Siberian (£40); and Iranian beluga (£90). They also do a ‘vegetarian caviar’, which is made from aubergine and courgette. (Only £8. Caviar is quite a bit cheaper when it doesn’t have any caviar in it.)
My friend and I ordered two of the actual caviars. First, the royal baerii, a little mound of black pearls, served, as per tradition, with a shot of vodka (for an additional £14 each, or £32 each for the Beluga Gold). It tasted smooth, silky. But then we had the pike caviar, the eggs a light beigey-brown. I’d never had pike caviar before, so I was excited to try some. It tasted… well, how shall I put this. It tasted like cream of mushroom soup.
Now, I’m not knocking it. I love cream of mushroom soup. I’m just saying that’s how the pike caviar happened to taste. Like a sophisticated, elegant, high-class form of cream of mushroom soup. I’d be very happy to have it again. On the other hand, it did cost £20 for a little bowl of it, whereas I could have a big bowl of Heinz cream of mushroom soup for 95p. I liked the pike caviar, but in these days of austerity we do all have to watch the pennies.
If you aren’t a fan of caviar, there’s plenty else to choose from. We had the red borsch, a thick and strong beet soup featuring chicken, potato and cabbage. Also the ricotta vareniky dumplings, very buttery and slippery. I wasn’t so keen on the traditional chicken aspic (a cold dish of meat and jelly – tastes like something you might feed a very posh dog). There was also a sea-bass ceviche, which I wasn’t expecting to find here: ceviche originated in Latin America, about 7,000 miles from the Black Sea. Then again, just about every restaurant does ceviche these days. In six months’ time you’ll be able to order a ceviche and fries at Mcdonald’s, and a stuffedcrust ceviche at Pizza Hut.
From the extensive list of mains (there were 21 of them) we picked two. First, the Black Sea turbot, a thudding great slab of it (well, you’d hope for a generous portion, at £38). And then, with apologies to the squeamish, the lambs’ tongues (from New Zealand; yes, they do take a bit of licence with the Black Sea theme). I liked them: dainty, nibbly, creamy, and served with salty morel mushrooms and truffle oil. If the mere idea makes you wince, don’t worry: it’s not as if they look like tongues. They aren’t poking out of the plate at you like tiny Rolling Stones logos. Just eat them and don’t think about it.
The puddings were all cakes: honey cake, pistachio cake, Kiev cake (meringue, walnuts, chocolate buttercream), Napoleon cake (flaky pastry, cream). Personally I’d recommend the honey cake: shiveringly sweet.
I liked the variety at Babel House. There were so many unfamiliar dishes I’d have loved to try but didn’t have room for: kharcho (Georgian lamb soup), ukha (fish broth), vorschmack (herring pâté). Just reading the names got me excited. They sounded like minor characters from Game of Thrones.
On the other hand, I couldn’t say I liked all the food equally – and it was on the expensive side. Perhaps, for anyone put off by the prices, they should serve some 19th-century American caviar as well.
I liked the lambs’ tongues. It’s not like they look like tongues, they weren’t poking out of the plate at you
Above Traditional chicken aspic. Below Black Sea turbot