I’ve gone all over the world to find the best food. Six continents, thousands of regions, countless dishes; all in search of the perfect meal. For a while, I thought it may never happen. There was always something a little off; salt, freshness, temperature – tiny, niggling complaints that, to anyone else, would be meaningless. To me, though, they were the difference between perfection and mundanity. My quest went on.
During my travels, I’d learned about an “underground supper club” in Moscow which met once a year. While “underground supper club” sounds mysterious and illicit, it’s just a place that operates casually, aka: without a food license. Chefs all over do it all the time for their friends. I’ve been to many.
This one was supposed to be different. They had the best caviar.
Caviar is a luxury item, but even in luxury-obsessed Russia, it’s started to fall out of favor because of sustainability issues. It’s still widely available, but the good stuff is getting harder and harder to find. The “best stuff” is nearly impossible to get a hold of. It’s locked down by the oligarchs and heads of state; if you’re not one of them or in close company, you’re out of luck. So when I heard that supper club would be serving the best of the best, I knew I had to get in there.
It wasn’t easy.
It took four years to ingratiate myself with influential Moscow foodies. I spent thousands upon thousands of dollars at their restaurants, building a reputation, blogging about their food, and cultivating relationships. Vasily Protchenko, a restaurateur and minor celebrity in Moscow, noticed me. Over time, we became friends. I didn’t know if he was privy to the supper club, but if anyone was, he had to be one of them. I didn’t say anything, though. I waited.
One afternoon, Vasily and I were talking about caviar, specifically the best sources. He mentioned the waters off Japan, which I found strange, since the Fukushima disaster had scared people away from certain types of fish in that area. He agreed that it was moderately disconcerting, but insisted the caviar from the fish in those waters was sublime. Then it happened.
“You know,” he told me, “there’s something even better. Something practically nobody knows about. Can you keep a secret?”
I did my best to contain my excitement. This had to be what I’d been waiting for.
“Of course,” I told him, and leaned in to listen.
Vasily told me about the supper club. There were 20 chefs and a few of their close friends from all around the world. They met in a restaurant right down the street from Vasily’s, and if I was willing to pitch in the $5,000 and keep my mouth shut, I’d be allowed to attend. One hour and a trip to the bank later, I had the $5,000. All I had to do was wait.
On the evening of the supper, I met with Vasily at his restaurant and had a drink. Then we walked down to the meeting place, which had a sign in front saying it was closed for the weekend. We walked around back to the kitchen and opened the door. The kitchen was full of chefs. Some of the chefs I recognized from my travels, some were strangers. All were busy preparing dishes for the evening.
We sat in the main dining room and I admired the decor. The room was softly candlelit and the windows had been covered in black paper. It was obvious this was a private event and no prying eyes were allowed.
“How does this work?,” I asked Vasily.
“They just start bringing out courses. They’re small, obviously, so you can sample all of them. The caviar will be at the end, I think. It’s the rarest and most special of all the dishes.”
True to his word, the food began to arrive. We were treated to sumptuous courses prepared by the meticulous and downright-genius minds of the master chefs. I ate and drank until my head spun.
Vasily excused himself and went to the kitchen. I chatted with some of the other diners and learned many were like me – rich foodies looking to experience the best of the best.
After a little while and a few more courses, someone near the kitchen clapped their hands to get everyone’s attention. To my surprise, it was Vasily.
“I want to thank everyone for coming tonight,” he announced. “The evening, as always, has been an incredible success. We’ve sampled food from the greatest chefs around the world, and as is customary, we like to end the night with something very special. You all know I’m passionate about my caviar. You’ve had the best from all over; Russia, Japan, Canada, etc etc. Tonight, I have another treat. It’s something extremely rare and takes a very long time to produce in quantities fit for consumption.”
A parade of servers carrying silver trays emerged from the kitchen. They swarmed around the room, placing plates of food in front of each diner. Vasily continued.
“This is the culmination of a year’s work. I had to pull a lot of strings and grease a lot of palms to bring this to you tonight, but for the first time, I’d like to share with you this caviar. It is without a doubt the rarest caviar on the planet, and I believe it is the most exquisite. Please, enjoy.”
Everyone applauded and Vasily bowed and came back to me.
“I had no idea you were the one behind the caviar!,” I exclaimed.
Vasily grinned. “I wanted you to be surprised,” he admitted. “Now please, eat. Let me know what you think.”
I looked down at my plate. There was a toast point, perfectly browned, covered with a reddish-brown paste. Atop the paste was a dollop of crème fraîche flecked with green pieces of dill. My mouth watered.
I brought it to my mouth and bit. My eyelids closed and I chewed, savoring the taste. It was thick and briny with distinct, livery notes. It was unlike any caviar I’d had in the past, but it was undoubtedly spectacular. I took another bite. The complexity of the flavor profile was mind boggling. Without realizing it, I’d been grinning like an idiot the whole time.
Vasily asked, “so what do you think?”
I swallowed and said, “it’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever tasted. It’s so smooth and buttery; there’s none of the intense saltiness or pop of normal caviar and I initially missed it, but then the notes of liver came through and coated my tongue. Where is it from?”
“North Korea,” Vasily said.
“My God,” I replied, “how did you get access to those waters without being shot?”
“Well here’s the thing,” Vasily told me, “I know a guy. He’s a doctor over there.”
I picked up my last piece and ate it while Vasily talked.
“I knew I’d never be able to fish in NK waters. But the first time the doctor and I talked, I realized he had access to this caviar without even knowing it. Over the years, I paid him a lot of money to collect it for me.”
I was puzzled.
“So the doctor brought you the fish?,” I asked.
Vasily laughed. “No no no, the doctor isn’t a fisherman! He’s a specialist – he has no time for fish.”
“A specialist in what?,” I inquired, profoundly confused.
“Gynecology,” Vasily told me. “They’re really into forced sterilizations over there. It’s bad for them but great for us. Without it, we wouldn’t have any of this caviar!”
The room seemed to darken and I felt my mouth getting very wet and very dry at the same time. I formed the words, “Vasily, what kind of caviar is this?”
The chef grinned. “Lady caviar!”