Ta­ble talk

A Rus­sian res­tau­rant with an ex­ten­sive menu, in­clud­ing seven types of caviar, nat­u­rally

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents - Michael Dea­con Pho­tographs: Jasper Fry

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

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