Pandering to Pretention

The line between the appeal of ingredients well-prepared for the table and the appeal of ingredients assembled for the menu is becoming increasingly slender. Some time ago a local restaurateur was called to defend the merits of a dish he had created, that of risotto and oysters in champagne sauce with caviar. Serving nicely-poached and seasoned oysters in a risotto seems like a good idea – we’ve been putting them in jambalaya for years – but the addition of champagne sauce and caviar to such a simple dish amounts to gilding the lily.

Using champagne in cooking is destroys its effervescence, eliminating the very quality that distinguishes it from other wines. But champagne has a long pedigree in cooking, particularly in Champagne itself, where the thrifty citizens make use of their local vintages in dishes much as the good people of Burgundy do in theirs. We shouldn’t expect to find a top-quality champagne used for cooking, and we’re given to understand that – in this country at least – champagne has become a blanket term for any sparkling wine as long as it proclaims its origin, e.g. “California Champagne”. Most likely the champagne used in this sauce was not French. Still, the name champagne has an undeniable cachet, adding a degree of sophistication, as does the inclusion of caviar. For centuries the finest caviar has been from beluga sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, a delicacy that sells for about $1000 an ounce. Fortunately, a local alternative has been found in the roe of the paddlefish, a cousin of the sturgeon that lives in the U.S. Formerly employed as catfish bait, this caviar is claimed to be a viable if not worthy substitute for beluga. At $20 an ounce, that is the caviar that was used in this dish, along with the champagne sauce, not forgetting the humble oysters and risotto, the last a suspiciously obligatory nod to the restaurant’s Italian theme.

The restaurateur’s defense of this dish ended with a dramatic monologue, a bravura clarion for the use of local ingredients, innovation in the kitchen, and a passionate declaration of his love of food and cooking. His finale should serve to remind us that the restaurant business is infused with theater; the set and seating, the lights and sounds, the script and billing are all part and parcel of the primary, which is profit. But for God’s sake, don’t forget the food.