When high rollers, professional athletes and celebrities order caviar at Bern's Steak House in Tampa, they look to dining room captain Matthew Villeneuve for guidance.
The 42-year-old graduate of Leto High School and the University of Florida joined the staff two days after getting a degree in anthropology in 2000.
Back then, Bern's had 10 caviars on its menu. In the past 20 years, the caviar menu has doubled. And Villeneuve knows everything about all 20 options.
If you like smoky flavors, he recommends Smoked Trout Caviar. For a creamier texture, order the Sasanian Siberian Baerii. Wild American Spoonbill Sturgeon roe is amazingly buttery.
And, for diners who prefer a salty brine, he suggests the Fresh Chattanooga Prestige Caviar. That's the most popular caviar on the Bern's menu.
"We carry 30-plus ounces of it at all times," said Villeneuve. "It's at a really good price point ($48 for an ounce) but people like the combination of the seawater and the nuttiness, plus it has a little more texture, there's a little more crunch to it."
Villeneuve not only studies caviar, he loves to eat it.
"It's one of the greatest culinary experiences I can think of," he said. But, he allowed, "It's kind of like blue cheese, you're either going to love it or be like, uh, I don't know."
We wanted to know. We asked Villeneuve to share some of his tips and taste preferences with a panel we brought to the restaurant. Our panelists were first-time caviar taster Ernest Hooper, assistant sports editor and columnist at the Tampa Bay Times; Janet Keeler, cookbook author and journalism instructor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg; and Tampa attorney Nancy Harris, a member of Chevaliers du Tastevin international food society.
While all of the options that were sampled are on the restaurant's caviar menu, not all are the real deal. That's because caviar has to come from sturgeon.
"It cannot technically be called caviar unless it comes from a sturgeon," said Villeneuve. "Some things we do call caviar, but that's just for the guests to understand that it is fish roe."
"True Russian Beluga Caviar — the Caspian Beluga — has been outlawed since 2006 and you cannot import any wild sturgeon whatsoever to the United States because it's a sustainability issue."
Sturgeon in the Caspian and Siberian seas were decimated by overfishing. The only wild-caught sturgeon from the United States is on Bern's caviar menu: the Wild American Hackleback. It's found in the Illinois and Missouri rivers and its roe are medium-sized, black pearls with a buttery flavor.
Other, more expensive caviars on the menu come from a hybrid of the sturgeon.
"There are really only three fish for our highest-end selections," Villeneuve said. It's called River Beluga-Kaluga. It's the most expensive on the menu at $185 an ounce and its roe are large, amber pearls "with a robust nutty flavor."
"When the roe are gold, it becomes the Sasanian Imperial Osetra, and when the pearls are extra big it becomes the Elite Reserve Osetra," Villeneuve said, comparing the caviars to fine wine when the "best grapes in the vineyard go to the flagship wines."
Other caviars are different grades of the roe from the same fish, based on color, size, texture and flavor. A couple of options, such as the Golden Whitefish, also are from the same fish, but the roe are blended with Florida mango in one variety and smoked with applewood in another.
The American Truffled Tiger Eye is a roe from the golden whitefish that is dotted with black truffles.
Wild American Spoonbill Sturgeon roe is a mixture of light and dark gray pearls from the paddlefish with a silky flavor. The Sasanian Almas (Golden) Imperial is roe from the paddlefish with a creamy and buttery flavor.
"They are the exact same fish but one (the Golden Imperial) is the albino version of the fish. It's extremely rare," said Villeneuve. "When you have the albino fish the eggs look like passion fruit. They are like a bright electric yellow. It's unbelievable but it has an intense brine flavor and it's really only for people who want that fresh seawater flavor."
With the exception of the wild American caviar, all of the options are farm-raised through aquaculture.
Before the panelists tasted one bite, Villeneuve and chef Hab Hamde brought them small spoons made of mother-of-pearl. Even plastic spoons are preferable to silver because some experts say silver spoons leave a metallic taste on the palate.
Hamde prepared four options from the menu along with a spread of garnishes for each variety. Toast points and homemade potato chips were placed on the table to use for the dipping and layering of roe. While the panelists cleansed their palates with Tampa's finest tap water, Villeneuve recommends drinking Champagne or vodka with most caviars.
Panelists sampled the Smoked Trout Caviar ($30 an ounce), Sasanian Russian Sturgeon Osetra ($95 an ounce), Fresh Chattanooga Prestige Caviar ($48 an ounce) and Sasanian Siberian Baerii ($100 an ounce).
Hooper, who initially was reluctant to try the tiny black beads of Sasanian Russian Sturgeon Osetra, had the first taste. While the chef plated each variety of caviar in a bowl of crushed ice with a selection of trimmings, Villeneuve told the novices to scoop a good-sized portion on the side of their thumb and taste it without any embellishment.
"There's such a method that is so refined in making this product that the purity of the caviar really is first and foremost the most important thing about it," said Villeneuve. "So I always tell the guest to try to eat one bite by itself. When you have a 30-year-old scotch, are you going to put Coke with it? You don't because that product in and of itself is so perfect it doesn't need anything."
After a bit of wincing, Hooper savored the bite. He followed Villeneuve's recommendation to "put a big old blob on there" and placed it on the roof of his mouth, crushing the beads with his tongue.
"Crushing it a little bit lets the juices come out of the eggs and you get more of the flavor," Hooper said. "You know, it has a texture that I can't describe. It's not like any other kind of food you can eat."
Harris, who hosted a New Year's caviar and vodka party on the millennium, said she liked the Russian sample for its nuttiness. She also raved about the Sasanian Siberian Baerii for its creaminess, and she described the Sasanian Russian Sturgeon Osetra pearls as "soothing."
She and Keeler preferred the Smoked Trout Caviar for its firmness and smoked fish flavor. It was almost like having a dollop of the best smoked spread they ever had.
"This is a combination of 80 percent oak/20 percent hickory on the smoke," our caviar expert said.
"This is the one I love the best with that avocado, green foam," said Keeler.
"Oh, it's amazing," said Harris. The garnishes included tiny grated bits of egg whites, egg yolks, onions, avocado foam and savory whipped creams. The cooked egg whites cut the freshness of any caviar.
While he liked licking it off the side of his fist, Hooper said he preferred eating the caviar on the toast points because "it sinks into the holes in the toast."
"So, I'm going to bring my wife here and I'm going to do this and she's going to lose her mind."