At a vineyard, you can sample wines before plunking down a few hundred dollars on a bottle. But with caviar, you don’t have that luxury. You just have to blindly trust that whatever is in the tin is of good quality and matches your taste preferences.
A new caviar tasting room in Sausalito, Calif., wants to change that. The Bump Bar, which opened last night, is a project of the California Caviar Company, a purveyor of sustainably farmed caviar and roe. At this 20-seat bar inside the company’s packing facilities, you can order dozens of caviars, individually by the gram, as flights or as part of a seven-course tasting menu that includes traditional caviar service followed by seafood-centric dishes that highlight a particular variety.
“The hardest thing with caviar is that you don’t know what you like,” company founder Deborah Keane said. “A lot of people will have a bad experience and say, ‘I hate caviar. I tried it once, it was salty, fishy, and it’s not my thing.’ But when you have fresh caviar that has been properly raised, properly farmed and properly processed, it’s not fishy-salty. And when you can try it by the gram, side by side by side, you’re like, ‘oh, I do like caviar. And this is the caviar I like.’”
The Bump Bar is playfully named for the way you can order the eggs—by the gram—and is based on the way caviar is purchased and graded in the industry. When inspecting a tin, buyers put a little mound on their hands to visually inspect the eggs and warm it up for tasting. At the bar, a small “bump” is placed on your hand when you walk through the door.
“That’s how I’ve always done it,” Keane said. “And it’s really the best way to eat caviar because you can really see the differences. Once you start putting onions and blini and crème fraiche in the mix, you have a beautiful experience, but you lose a little bit of the nuances of that particular species.”
For Keane the goal is to make this experience, which she often shares with chefs and distributors, available to consumers. Then they can build their confidence, learn their preferences—creamy and nutty or minerally and earthy—and obtain the breadth of knowledge to make educated purchasing decisions. (All of the caviar and roe available for tasting in The Bump Bar is also available for retail purchase there in the shop.)
Consulting chef Nate Tauer (Bouchon, Petit Crenn, Coi) built the tasting room’s menu, which features caviar-centric dishes such as ham and onion croquets with Jacques Pépin’s private label pressed caviar. Other dishes include black cod with chicken jus, roasted pineapple, smoked onion and Siberian caviar; Binchō-tan grilled lobster with sunchokes, celery and saffron-infused whitefish roe; and fluke crudo with dashi, black lime, California seaweed and white sturgeon caviar.
There is also traditional caviar service—blini with crème fraiche, pickled red onion, a hen egg and Queen’s Reserve white sturgeon caviar—and simple pairings such as roe and cava for $20 or 100-point Champagne and $400-an-ounce caviar. The beverage list features Champagnes, wines and beer.
“Caviar has a lot of mystery and I want to reveal some of that mystery,” Keane said. “This is where we make caviar, it’s where we process, pack and ship all of our caviar daily and fresh to all of our customers. It’s where you can learn about caviar and where you can ask all of your questions. How is it raised? What’s endangered? How do we serve it? How do we store it? How do we eat it?”
The California Caviar Company is the only vertically integrated caviar company in the U.S. Keane, who founded the company in 2007, says she’s seen caviar become unapproachable to consumers for two reasons. One, the availability of reliable sources. In the past decade, wild caviar was banned world-wide and farming became the method of necessity and choice. (There are now two wild caviars that are legal, and they come from the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers.)
It took years for sustainable farms to catch up; it takes up to 10 years to raise a sturgeon to produce 3-millimeter eggs. Two, the stocks depleted so rapidly that the prices shot up to unreasonable rates. But the supply is steadily increasing. In 2004, when Keane started farming, there were six farms raising sturgeon. This past year there were nearly 20,000 farms raising sturgeon around the world.
The Bump Bar carries caviar and roe from Keane’s farm and from around the world. But she will not serve it unless she has personally visited and vetted the production facility. When she started her business, her daughter was 2 years old and her philosophy was, if she can’t serve it to her daughter, she didn’t want to sell it.
“At California Caviar we believe in everyday indulgence,” she said. “One of my favorite quotes is, ‘caviar: the pause that says I love myself.’ I love the Michelin experience, but not everybody has three hours to sit down and go through 18 courses. But we all deserve a little something special. Whatever it is that you’re looking for, we hope to have that experience for you.”
Reservations are currently available through Tock.