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Caviar, the once-stuffy food, is now found on everything from nachos to fried chicken.Christie Vuong/The Globe and Mail

On a recent visit home, my son, a diehard foodie who lives in Los Angeles, made “caviar nachos.” When he suggested the dish, I pictured the exotic sounding appetizer served on a platter with tortilla chips, perhaps a little crème fraîche, some chopped onion and a tin of caviar – scooped out, as tradition dictates, with a mother-of-pearl spoon.

What we nibbled on instead was not that. Inspired by a dish he orders often at a restaurant in Santa Monica, he served plain potato chips with French onion dip, some chives and a bowl of salmon roe. Fish eggs, to be sure, but not technically caviar since the delicate pink pearls are not harvested from sturgeon.

That prehistoric fish’s eggs have been coveted for centuries by the Ancient Greeks, medieval kings, Russian tsars and, more recently, high net-worth individuals who adore their distinctive pop and buttery taste. The caviar purist may be horrified at the thought of the crown jewel of canapés paired with a $3 bag of Ruffles. But the truth is fish eggs, a once rare and mysterious delicacy, are showing up on menus everywhere in inventive and casual ways that make them more accessible (though still far from cheap).

Toronto’s Prime Seafood Palace (a fine-dining hot spot from chef Matty Matheson) will charge you $950 for 250 grams and bring it to your table with a bowl of potato chips, shallots, crème fraîche and chives. At Vela, a few blocks away, diners can order a $40 fried caviar oyster with Northern Divine caviar from British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast and Peppercorn ranch. In Montreal, the former Russian-themed cocktail bar Kabinet reopened this spring as a French bistro with caviar options palatable to more budgets, starting with $20 caviar bumps (dollops of the little pearls eaten off the back of the hand), trout or salmon roe (in the mid-range) and a fine Polish sturgeon for $180 (30 grams).

So why is this once-stuffy status symbol seemingly everywhere? Toronto-based importer Med Khandan, owner of Caviar Foodie, says fish eggs – from premium sturgeon varieties (beluga, ossetra and sevruga) to the less prestigious roe from salmon, trout, lumpfish, whitefish or carp – are taking up more real estate on menus here and around the world for a few key reasons.

“First, 95 per cent of caviar is now farmed – not wild caught – which means it’s not as rare and expensive as it used to be. Second, there is a new generation of epicure – millennials in particular – who are adventurous and want to try different things,” Khandan says. “They see images on their phones of caviar being added to pizza [courtesy of Wolfgang Puck] or fried chicken [á la David Chang] and they realize caviar is no longer completely out of their reach. It’s still prestigious, to be sure, but it’s also become rather hip.”

Frank Pabst, executive chef at Vancouver’s renowned seafood restaurant Blue Water Café, believes COVID – weird as it seems – also appears to have whetted the public’s appetite for caviar, which until 15 years ago was pretty much the exclusive domain of income earners in the one per cent. “We noticed after the pandemic that people wanted to spoil themselves a bit more,” says Pabst, whose restaurant has one of this country’s largest selections of caviar with 11 different varieties, all sustainably farmed, from countries such as China, Iran, Italy and Canada (B.C.’s Northern Divine and Acadian Sturgeon from New Brunswick). “I don’t know if it’s because people were house-bound for such a long period of time but our wine sales increased and so, too, did demand for the higher-priced items on the menu, caviar being at the top of the list. We have young couples come in and treat themselves to a tin for their anniversary, and families who share it with their children.”

“As a chef – and caviar lover – I can now feel good about serving it to our customers,” Pabst says. “The farmed product is a sustainable delicacy, of really good quality, that more people can actually afford.”

Even vegans can now indulge. In Las Vegas, the plant-based restaurant Crossroads Kitchen sells caviar bumps made from kelp for US$30. It’s also on offer more than ever at 36,000 feet. This summer, Emirates began offering its first-class passengers all-you-can-eat caviar, complemented by vintage Dom Perignon Champagne.

All of this is remarkable given caviar’s very existence was threatened almost to the point of extinction after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A maelstrom of overfishing, poaching and pollution depleted stocks to such an extent that, in 1998, the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) stepped in to protect wild sturgeon with a series of catch and export quotas. The United States banned beluga caviar imports outright in 2005.

Anticipating the crackdown, Behzad T Ami, owner of Vancouver’s International House of Caviar, says farms in China, Israel, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Iran, Japan, Poland, the U.S. and Canada stepped in to fill the void. Year after year, the quality improved and Ami says each farm now produces caviar with its own unique terroir, which can be buttery, nutty, with a fresh ocean flavour or a touch of salt.

As chef Albert Ponzo of the Royal Hotel in Picton, Ont., puts it: “Farmed caviar ticks all the right boxes.” When the historic property in Prince Edward County reopened after a nine-year renovation earlier this year, Ponzo didn’t hesitate to put it on his farm-to-table menu.

“Our name is the ‘Royal’ so the idea was to present caviar in a more traditional way that is all about pampering yourself,” says Ponzo, who was formerly the executive chef at Le Select Bistro in Toronto. He serves Imperial Osetra Caviar in beautiful scallop shells with egg yolks, egg whites, chives, buckwheat blini and crème fraîche. For $145 a serving, his guests can dip into this delicacy with a mother of pearl spoon and a clear conscience. “I love that we are no longer using and destroying whole school of sturgeon any more,” says Ponzo, who prefers to eat his caviar, unadorned, on lightly buttered white toast. “I’m of the school that less is more, but if things like caviar bumps grab people’s attention then I think that’s a positive thing. It spreads awareness and appreciation for a delicacy that almost disappeared but, thankfully, has made a remarkable comeback.”

On the West Coast, Pabst agrees. He always has a tin of caviar at home, which he plans to serve his family of four this holiday in the simplest way possible. “I love caviar. I like the little pop. I like the saltiness and I like the ocean flavour. We will have it on a lightly toasted English muffin, cut into fours, with some sparkling wine. It’s perfection, just like that.”

Editor’s note: (Dec. 1, 2022): An earlier version of this article incorrectly referenced caviar farms in Russia and Finland rather than Iran and Japan. This version has been corrected.

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