Wynn and Encore chefs are conjuring enticing new dishes to showcase the once-fanciful, always flavorful caviar.
From the Encore Lobby Bar and Café's new caviar menu: a halfdozen crispy wonton cones with crème fraîche and caramelized onions, topped with farm-raised European caviar.
Once reserved strictly for royalty, caviar was served in bars like peanuts in 19th-century North America, its mainstream usage heightened by the discovery of sturgeon in US rivers. But as can easily happen with too much of a good thing, the popularity of this delectable, snappy roe led to overfishing, causing an import/export ban on wild-sturgeon caviar in the US over the last decade. That’s why most caviar found at Wynn and Encore these days is farm-raised. “They remove the roe and then return the sturgeon to the water and let them reproduce [to prevent] overfishing,” explains Wynn and Encore Executive Sous Chef Brian Kenny.
Among the foodie set, caviar has inextricably been tied to the concept of fine dining, but Kenny is among a group of chefs throughout Wynn and Encore who are seeking to redefine attitudes about these pearls of the sea. Recently Kenny procured four different types of 10-gram caviar to allow guests the opportunity to sample the delicacy on a smaller scale.
At Encore's Lobby Bar and Café, a new caviar menu allows guests to add a touch of luxe without breaking the bank.
“We had caviar on the menu, but I thought it would be a great idea to have a customer-friendly approach to it,” says Jeremy Smith, executive chef of the Lobby Bar and Café. “Guests wanted to sample it, but we didn’t really offer the option. This way we can sell 10 grams with a dish so that people can enjoy a taste.”
SW's classic caviar presentation.
Not content with simply offering smaller portions, Smith implemented a new caviar-focused menu with items specifically designed to bring out the flavor of the roe. “It’s all about offering different looks and tastes and textures, though the focus is most definitely on the caviar,” he notes.
Smith’s menu features several offerings in moderate portions, perfect for those who might stop in for a drink but then also indulge in a tasting from the caviar menu. Choices kick off with the only non-sturgeon roe on any Wynn or Encore menu: salmon roe, served with a crispy salmon croquette with lemon aioli. “The salmon roe is much larger in size,” says Kenny. “About a quarter of an inch in diameter, where the osetra are anywhere from a 16th to an eighth of an inch, and it has more of a pop to it and more juice.”
While people employ the word “caviar” to describe any fish egg, true caviar comes from sturgeon. If the roe is from another fish, you must specify, for instance, “salmon caviar” (just as a martini means gin; if you prefer vodka, then a “vodka martini” is your order).
Several of the Lobby Bar’s caviar offerings are ideal for sharing, such as the half-dozen crispy wonton cones with crème fraîche and caramelized onions, topped with farm-raised European caviar. Seafood options include the jumbo lump crab and edamame hummus with crispy potatoes and farmed-raised American sturgeon caviar. If you’re looking for a great bottle to round out the meal, Wynn wine director Mark Thomas suggests a Champagne pairing. “The Henriot Brut Millésimé 98 is fresh in style yet possesses a richness from its age,” he says. “From that combination, you have bright apple flavors along with a creamy, almost butterscotch flavor. Still dry in style, it would complement the many flavors of this dish.”
Mizumi's toro tartare featuring golden osetra caviar and a yuzuginger sauce.
The two most decadent options on the caviar menu are the poached Maine lobster and avocado with yuzu-wasabi vinaigrette and Siberian caviar, and a dish that pairs osetra caviar with truffled fingerling potato salad. Other seafood offerings include citrus-scented crispy fried Blue Point oysters with micro arugula and white sturgeon caviar. “We take the classic flavors and re-create them differently, “ Smith says.
Another chef having fun with caviar pairings is David Walzog, who recently introduced a unique slider on his menu at Lakeside “to take the formality out of caviar,” he says. “I like the slider because it introduces caviar to people who aren’t committing to an entire tin or to an ounce or more of caviar in one serving.”
Walzog’s slider consists of a butter brioche bun freshly baked “almost à la minute,” or just before service, then topped with whipped crème fraîche, chives, and caviar in five- or 10-gram increments. “It’s an awesome bite,” Walzog says. “The creamy quality of the bread curbs the [roe's] salinity and complements it really well.”
As with so many items that find their way onto Wynn and Encore menus, a tasting is in order before selections are finalized. “We’ll taste 10 or 15 different caviars, and the ones that really stand out make it to the menu,” Walzog explains, noting that the caviar found in the sliders is either Northern California white sturgeon or Israeli Prime Galilee, from the Sea of Galilee. “It’s a medium-size pearl that has really great snap to it, but it’s also very balanced with its flavor and salinity as well.” As the final touch, Walzog added an ice-cold shot of vodka to the presentation. “I just thought it was a very cool experience,” he says, “this great caviar slider with a miniature vodka bottle and a frozen shot glass.”
Next door at SW Steakhouse, Walzog offers perhaps the ultimate in classic caviar presentations: 30 grams of the Israeli Prime Galilee caviar, ringed by an array of traditional accompaniments, including chives, egg whites and egg yolks, buckwheat blinis and sour cream, and minced red onion. “We also have plenty of people who order it without anything, especially at SW,” Walzog points out. “A tin of caviar and a pearl spoon perched on a little bowl of ice; that’s all they want, and they just have at it.”
Throughout his chef training, Walzog has tasted caviar in a wide variety of incarnations, whether in a pasta or fish sauce or as a little dollop on top of scallops—the latter, he says, is a particularly good match. “Like sour cream or the brioche, the fat in scallops offsets the caviar’s salinity and makes it even more wonderful,” he says. “As a cook I find it adds a lot to dishes, not just in terms of elegance or price point, but more importantly in depth of flavor. And you don’t get that flavor from anything else in the sea.”
Golden osetra sushi, garnished with edible gold flakes, at Mizumi.
Caviar has always been on the menu at Mizumi, including one offering that features golden osetra sushi embellished with flakes of gold leaf. “It’s very simple,” says Devin Hashimoto, executive chef of Mizumi, of his choice to garnish the dish with edible gold flakes. Wrapped in seaweed to contain the eggs, the sushi form is called gunkan, or battleship. “If you just try it on its own with the sushi rice, you get the true flavor of the caviar. The gold flakes are just to add a little extra, the cherry on the sundae,” Hashimoto says.
Of course, Japanese kitchens use roe in many different forms. Ikura, or salmon roe, and tobiko (flying fish roe) are traditional garnishes, along with masago, which comes from a fish called capelin (a type of smelt), and finally mentaiko, or cod roe. “Now we have even more interesting flavors to play with,” says Hashimoto. “We offer a wasabi tobiko, a golden one that’s yuzu flavor.” Hashimoto and sushi Master Chef Masaru Matsuura enjoy the variety, not only for their different taste sensations but also to add an artistic touch to plating.
A new star on the Mizumi menu is toro tuna tartare, featuring golden osetra caviar, yuzu-ginger sauce, and furikake (seaweed) brioche croutons. “The furikake brioche takes the place of the standard blinis or toast points,” Hashimoto explains. The chef also likes to include osetra as the amuse-bouche for his six-course omakase tasting. “I always want to start with something cold. Right now that’s a chilled Kusshi oyster from British Columbia with yuzu kosho mignonette and bamboo puffed rice and golden osetra caviar,” he says. “Creamy and not too salty, it balances with the oyster. I add the crispy bamboo puffed rice to give the amuse-bouche more texture.”
Indeed, along with color, taste, and size, texture is one of the characteristics on which caviar is graded. “You want it to break in your mouth,” says Hashimoto. “The osetra we use, if you roll it around in your mouth, it will separate easily, they’re that firm. Golden osetra is clean; it has a creaminess and buttery finish that is amazing.”