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a blitz of caviar, chocolate, & wine

Windy | Dec 12, 200412:52 PM

It's been a week of gustatory pleasure; 100 tastes a day. The end of the year seems like a particularly appropriate time to go out in style; bills won't arrive till next year.

With that in mind, we headed to Arlequin for a tasting of aromatic dry white wines from around the world, served with shellfish (enormous smoked mussels, plump Hawaiian shrimp, and a remoulade I devoured by the spoonful). As previously posted, Amphora is expanding its tastings and taking advantage of a small private room and charming garden behind the cafe and Absinthe. I especially liked a Gerovassiliou Malagousia and a trocken Riesling from Heyden. Neil and Chris were welcoming and informative, and invited refills of any of the 12 wines we sampled. $25 well spent, including a 10% discount.

A quick stop at Yum to collect my dividend led to sampling a roasted, peppery harissa ($12 a jar), melt on your tongue Irish Boilie (more an herbed sour cream than a cheese, $10 a jar), and cardoon honey from Elba (who else but a chowhound would seek out such a thing?). Yes, there are tasting jars hidden away in the fridge. Unfortunately no soda samples, but I did pick up a few bottles of Barritt's pineapple ginger ale and Almdudler, the Austrian national soda. The gorgonzola and red onion potato chips are a must.

Yesterday, I decided to put Tsar Nicoulai's often praised domestic caviars to the test and not having much to compare them to, brought along a Russian friend and her husband. We ordered a domestic sampler ($16), a premium domestic sampler ($35), and avocado with sturgeon roe. This allowed us to to try seven different caviars plus the four flavored whitefish roes.

My favorites were the golden trout roe, which is small and resembles ikura, the salmon roe served at sushi bars. Less salty and more delicate but still with a definite pop, plus it's an excellent value. The California estate select osetra had a better texture than the regular estate osetra, which Anya had proclaimed "silty"; but the taste just didn't warrant the price. I liked the paddlefish a lot. My friends preferred the hackleback, tiny black roe with a firm texture, but that didn't seem much more refined than the cheap stuff I buy at Trader Joe's for dip.

Of the "infused" whitefish roes, the ginger seemed best suited to combining with other foods. We liked the truffle oil, but you could barely taste anything underneath. Beet-saffron was forgettable but bright. Wasabi was milder than expected, but I didn't like it as much as the wasabi tobiko at Yum Yum Fish. Whitefish roe without flavoring had a nice texture but little taste. I wasn't crazy about the sturgeon mousse.

Blini are tasty but thicker and smaller than Russian blini would be, more silver dollar pancakes than an ideal taster to complement the caviar. We spooned the better caviars on the epis I got from Acme. Anya thought a European butter would be a good alternative to créme fraiche.

Stepping up, we decided to sample the Iranian asetra (~$36 for a 10-gram taste). A Romanian beluga is available too (~$46 a taste), but Anya reasoned that Iranian caviar should be closer to Russian in flavor. This asetra was excellent, greasier than the domestic caviars, gray-green in color, a trace saltier. We devoured every tiny bead, sparring with our pearl spoons in all the crevasses. At $2000/pound though, the Iranian asetra brought to mind Steve Martin's credit check before dinner in "L.A. Story."

As a bonus, they accidentally put together a plate of California estate osetra and when it didn't seem to belong to anyone, the manager gave it to us. We liked it better free. Actually we liked it better with a squeeze of lemon and a little onion. But while the texture was better than in the previous sampler, the flavor was still muddy. Next time I'd avoid the samplers and go straight to my favorites, especially if someone else was buying.

The people next to us got a tray of shooters with oysters, flavored roes, and sake; definitely fun bar food, probably not for the connoisseur. I'm also not sure about the live fish bowls, which reminds me of a sushi reception I attended at the Monterey Aquarium.

A 2004 Nobilo Sauvignon blanc from New Zealand was refreshing; a too cold chardonnay seemed overpowering. Service is friendly but not especially attentive. We probably would have ordered more wine if anyone had asked (and for caviar, why not cushier chairs, or a tiara?). And personally, I'd turn the bar around so diners can all be facing the marketplace. It's great people-watching.

The cafe seems to be burnishing San Francisco's glamorous reputation; several tourists walking by exclaimed that they didn't have a caviar cafe, or anything like the ferry building, where they lived.

Later we stopped in at Recchiuti and picked up a few chocolates to share at Imperial Tea Court. Orchid oolong tea is back, smooth and balanced as always. We also tried Wild Old Bush Shuixian, a rare oolong which started out pungent and mellowed to a rich nutty flavor with successive pours. Keemun Mao Feng, a fragrant and somewhat delicate black tea with slender leaves, rounded out the selection.

Dragonwell dumplings were surprisingly tasty, with a sweet dipping sauce. The tea went surprisingly well with chocolate. Next time try a rose caramel with orchid oolong or cardamom truffle with pu-erh.

As we were leaving, an entire ferry of Santas arrived from Oakland for some sort of convention. A perfect weekend of extravagance; makes it just a little harder to go back to Lucky Charms in a plastic bowl.

Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

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