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Mouthing Off

The egg and I: As the metro area slo-o-o-wly gains more first-rate restaurants like 15 Degrees and food a little less slowly surpasses sports in popularity--hey, we're not being asked to fork over $180 million to build Pat Bowlen a new restaurant--we occasionally get a taste of what's hot in other cities. One of the big trends is the caviar bar, and while New York boasts nearly two dozen of them, Denver has been blessed with exactly one: Beluga, at 1523 Market Street. Since it opened but a month ago, it's not quite ripe for a review, but I'll get there.

Meanwhile, the current caviar rage convinced me and seven other eggheads that it was as good a time as any to blow $150 apiece on as much caviar, and as many different kinds of caviar, as we could get our hands on. Feeling oh-so-very stylish, we arranged a so-called Egg Festival, where champagne and vodka--the traditional beverages of choice, because they clear the oil from the tongue so that more caviar can be consumed without any overlap of flavors--shared table space with blini, toast points, new potatoes with creme fraiche and all the other controversial caviar accompaniments.

Purists believe there should be nothing between the caviar and the palate, and since we had one of those in the crowd, we started out by arranging the ten different types of caviar in a circle on a plate and requiring the participants to make tasting notes on all of them. The caviars we were sampling: beluga 000 ($198 for 8 ounces), sevruga ($185 for 14 ounces), osetra ($165 for 14 ounces), keluga ($148.50 for 8 ounces), pasteurized beluga ($120 for 14 ounces), American paddlefish ($64.50 for 8 ounces), American bowfin ($29 per pound), Alaskan salmon roe ($18.50 per pound), pressed caviar ($160 per pound) and golden whitefish roe ($14 for 14 ounces).

We were all very sick later that night and the next day.
But, of course, it was worth it.
For those unfamiliar with caviar--pronounced cah-viar by the in-the-know crowd--we're talking about fish eggs, specifically the ones produced by the female sturgeon. By law, only sturgeon eggs can be labeled solely as caviar; the crap you get at the grocery store in little jars has to have its fish of origin before the word "caviar," as in "lumpfish caviar" or "salmon caviar." And if that's been your only experience with caviar, you ain't had caviar.

It's not for everyone, anyway. One member of our group had never tasted real caviar, and after the egg orgy, he was still unsure why we were so ga-ga over it. Here's why: It all comes down to taste and texture, the faint saltiness ("malossol" means no more than 5 percent of the caviar contains salt, which is added right after the fish is plucked from the water to preserve it) and the repeated pop! pop! that goes on in your mouth.

The amount of salt, the way the caviar has been chilled (it has to stay between 28 and 38 degrees), the freshness of the eggs (April, May and June, and then November, December and January are the best times of the year to get it because they coincide with fish hauls), and the fish itself determine the quality. No two batches of caviar ever taste the same, because of the variety of fish--sturgeon are bottom-feeders, and they are what they eat--and the amount of salt added, a decision made on the shore by a caviar "master," the training for which has been passed down for centuries.

Caviar originally came only from the Caspian Sea, which is where we get beluga, osetra and sevruga, which are just names for the different sizes of eggs, from largest to smallest. Beluga comes in three colors ranging from light-gray to black, and the eggs are graded 0, 00 and 000, the last being the lightest. It's also the most rare, so it's the most expensive. But there is no flavor difference between the three grades, so pay less and get more, I say. Iran and Russia both offer caviar, but most connoisseurs agree that Russia does a better job (Iran is cheaper, though).

The Chinese have gotten in on the act, too, due to the sturgeon that frequents the Amur River near Manchuria. The eggs are the same size as beluga but cost $50-$75 less per pound, so ke-luga's a good deal. There are also varieties of sturgeon in the States, one of which is the paddlefish, and that turned out to be the surprise hit of the tasting. Everyone agreed it ranked in the top four or five--even though paddlefish roe costs half as much as beluga and $50 less than osetra and sevruga.

Getting the caviar is easy, although you may have to pay a lot to have it Fed Exed to your extra-cold refrigerator. There are quite a few purveyors, but prices fluctuate, so it pays to call around among the more respected companies. I actually cobbled the tasting together from several sources, including Zabar's (212-787-2000) in New York and Urbani Truffles & Caviar (800-281-2330) in L.A. I got the pasteurized beluga--the other roe is fresh; pasteurization means it lasts longer but the result is saltier, fishier eggs--at European Mart, at 5225 South Leetsdale, which sells 3.5-ounce tins for $40. It's pretty good for pasteurized and could do in a pinch in recipes--certainly better than lumpfish. (Alfalfa's does carry preservative-free, pasteurized caviar; beluga is $52 an ounce, osetra $35, and sevruga $28.)

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