There are only 13 cities in the world with Caviar House & Prunier Seafood Bars:
- Switzerland – Geneva, Crans-Montana, Zurich
- France – Paris
- United Kingdom – London
- Germany – Hamburg
- Denmark – Copenhagen
- Spain – Malaga
- USA – New York
- Japan – Tokyo
- Qatar – Doha
- United Arab Emirates – Dubai
- Turkey – Istanbul
Before boarding a budget airline flight and knowing the “quality” of the food for sale on board, I opted to try the Caviar House & Prunier Seafood Bar Geneva Airport.
First, some history to get the gastric juices flowing.
In 1925 Emile Prunier opened the “Prunier” restaurant on Victor Hugo avenue at the corner of rue Traktir. Already known for ‘La Madeleine’ in rue Duphot created by his father in 1872, the new establishment soon became the prestigious place to eat caviar and a favourite meeting place for seafood lovers.
After the First World War, it became difficult to obtain Russian caviar. It was during an unexpected meeting with a certain Mr Blanc that Emile Prunier discovered the presence of sturgeon in the Gironde (France) and met his future caviar master, originally from Russia, Alexander Scott. Thanks to its new production of Prunier caviar, Maison Prunier became known worldwide.
After the death of the Tsar in 1918, the ancient tradition of smoking the most noble cut of the salmon – the back fillet called “balik” – sank into oblivion. The success story of the Balik company started in 1978, 60 years after the extinction of the Romanov dynasty.
It was then that Hans Gerd Kübel, a stage actor and director at the Zurich Municipal Theatre, bought a 300-year-old Swiss farmhouse in Ebersol in hilly Toggenburg, which he restored. On one of his theatre trips, he had a fateful meeting in Berlin: Hans Gerd Kübel got to know Israel Kaplan, a Russian from Riga, who was the grandson of the last smokery master. Kaplan initiated Kübel into the world of smoking salmon and finally unveiled the secret of the smoking method of the imperial court. Balik has remained the sole custodian of this secret formula to this day. They chose a 300 year-old farmhouse in the heart of the Swiss Alps not only for its pure groundwater, but also for the quality of the wood in its forests and its altitude which influences the smoking process.
In 1984, Peter G. Rebeiz, the president of Caviar House, experienced Balik salmon for the first time and contacted Mr. Kübel. As a result of this encounter, Caviar House became the proprietor of Balik and today, Caviar House & Prunier continues the tradition of the famous Balik salmon to the same standard as that produced by the Imperial Court of Tsar Nicolas II.
The ‘amuse bouche’ was a sliver of Balik smoked salmon.
I chose the set degustation menu of caviar, smoked salmon and foie gras; surely, the ultimate trio of quick indulgence. But first, the oysters caught my eye…
Gillardeau oysters are a brand of edible oysters produced by the Gillardeau family and their small private company, which was founded in 1898 in Bourcefranc-le-Chapus near La Rochelle and the Île d’Oléron in western France. They produce only “spéciales” oysters that are fleshier and more expensive than regular. The Gillardeau name is associated with fine oysters like Hermès for handbags.
Gillardeau farms two-year-old seedling oysters it buys, for the next two years, “encouraging” them into a ‘lemon’ shape and maximising the quantity of the flesh by carefully adjusting the salinity and depth of the water. They keep oysters from clumping together, placing only 135 to 150 oysters in each of the thick plastic filter sacks that can hold 1,000. Workers turn the sacks every two weeks to break the small shells that the oysters produce, to “stress” them into eating more and to grow into the desired shape.
The difference is discernable. I rejected the Fine de Clair oysters on offer for these Gillardeau Spéciales No.2 and reaped the explosive climax of flavours in my mouth. Each morsel had that extra ‘body’ and was fleshier and creamier than usual. There was the accompanying low salinity of sea water hit every time I chomped on one.
I tried it three ways: ‘au naturel’, with a sprinkle of chopped shallots and finally, the classical chopped shallots vinaigrette. I have to admit that the classic condiment in moderation was the best, as the acidity enhanced the flavour of the oyster. I would also like to debunk they urban myth of swallowing whole — that contributes nothing to the flavour. Lesson No.1, dear AlphaLuxe readers; “Don’t spit. Chomp then swallow.”
Price: $49 for six oysters.
Prunier Caviar Tradition ($72 for 30 g)
This product constitutes 45 – 60% of the total production at Prunier. More than half of the world production of farmed caviar is Baerii caviar and it is the variety produced in France. Egg size is medium and colour ranges from golden brown to gray and black. The grains pop well in the mouth, releasing fruity and nutty flavors with mineral notes.
My sample was grey – black grains and I tasted it three ways:
- Spooned from it’s chilled container on a blini with “traditional” condiments like chopped egg (whites and yolk), chives, capers, crème fraiche and red onions.
- As above but with buttered toast.
- “à la royale”: warmed on the back of your hand and licked off. PuristS say this is the only way to taste real caviar and the condiments left to enhance ‘caviar substitutes’.
It was buttery with a pleasing texture, a mild flavour and just the right amount of salt to highlight its natural taste without being too salty. There was also a hint of hazelnut and a pleasant aftertaste but no oily fishiness.
I have to admit that the stronger condiments detracted from the natural taste of the caviar but as a whole ritual, they rounded off the eating experience…blini, egg white/yolk, capers, crème fraiche, red onions…chomp…repeat. What’s not to like?
French caviar is not as salty as the Persian or Russian styles but as wild sturgeon stocks are falling, perhaps we have to get used to the farmed variety. It is no longer the “musty” tasting product when they started and now the taste is up there with the best.
Next time, AlphaLuxe must test the Qiandao Premium caviar that Prunier produce. This selection of caviar is from a hybrid of two sturgeons indigenous to the Amur River, on the northern border between China and Russia. This sturgeon is now raised in the crystalline waters of Lake Qiandao, “the thousand islands lake” in the heart of the Huangshan Mountains in China. At only $60 for 30g, its worth a try…..
Balik Original Fillet Tsar Nikolaj Smoked Salmon
($124 for 320g fillet enough for a dining couple)
As this was a quick degustation before boarding my EasyJet budget flight, I did not taste the ultimate Balik No.1 smoked salmon, of which, they only produce 1000 fillets per annum.
Still, the Balik Original from the eponymous rear fillet was the best smoked salmon that I have tasted so far…..
It had a resilient texture initially that sighed apart with additional pressure from my knife. The taste was buttery unctuousness with subtle smoke and followed by a flavour that can only be described as …well…salmon.
Those two small morsels were the highlight of my degustation.
Edouard Artzner Whole Duck Foie Gras ($44 for 150g)
Prunier partner with Artzner in Strasbourg, a famous producer of foie gras since 1803, to bring the delicacy to our plates. I did not try the goose variety that I prefer because it was not part of the degustation deal.
As the finishing part of my little snack, it was perfect. Not too fatty for pre-flight and full of that ‘roll-around-your-tongue’ foie gras flavour without overt “duckiness”. I used up my buttered toast and added the apple & ginger chutney provided…Yum!
The subject of what to drink with this luxury selection can be the topic of a 5000-word dissertation: Vodka, Sauternes, Gewürztraminer, Pouilly Fume, Muscadet, Sancerre, Chablis, Daiginjo Sake or Gin? They each have their best food pairings but to complement all four food items, it had to be champagne.
Ruinart Blanc de Blancs ($92 for Half Bottle)
The chardonnay is the heart and soul of Ruinart. Harvested in the Côte des Blancs and Montagne de Reims terroirs, it is the crux of all their cuvées.
It is a pale golden yellow colour with gentle green tints; they must know this by their use of the clear glass bottle. The small bubble are released energetically and persistent foam. The nose is fruity and citrus followed by white peaches and wild flowers. On the palate, it was fresh but rounded and tasted like wine. I know that sounds like an oxymoron but some wine tastes like “fruit flavoured fizzy water” whereas this champagne has the vinosity expected. The taste is as the nose; of white peaches and citrus with medium finish of minerals that complements the seafood.
I was too full for dessert but they provide a complimentary plate of pastries and chocolates anyway…
Perhaps $288 (after taxes and tips) is a bit steep for a pre-flight snack but if “The true cost of luxury is the choice that it affords”, I made a very good choice indeed.
Author’s Biography: Melvyn Teillol-Foo (MTF)
Dr Melvyn Teillol-Foo is a contributor on AlphaLuxe web-zine.
He is also a moderator on PuristSPro.com horology discussion fora. He blends his scientific medical objectivity from the pharmaceutical industry with purist passion, in his musings about watches, travel, wine, food and other epicurean delights.
His travelogue ‘Lazing’ and feasting ‘Grazing’ series of articles have now passed into “mythic legend” on the original ‘ThePuristS.com’ website. Those were the halcyon days when he was “rich and famous” that he remembers with bittersweet fondness.
Dr Teillol-Foo is a quoted enthusiast on the watch industry, appearing in feature articles and interviews by Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Sunday Times (London), Chronos (Japan), Citizen Hedonist (France) and other publications. He has authored articles for magazines like International Watch (iW) – both U.S. & Chinese editions, ICON (Singapore), August Man (Singapore), Comfort (China) and The Watch (Hong Kong).