‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’, Marilyn Monroe crooned in the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as she strutted down the red staircase in a bright pink dress, lavishing in the sparkly jewels that her male suitors threw in her direction. ‘Tiffany’s, Cartier, talk to me Harry Winston!’ she exclaimed, pleading her case that diamonds will never betray us the way men will. In my case, I went to the one man and the one jewel that wouldn’t betray me for my birthday, Chef Benjamin Bailly and the little black pearl called caviar. Ben Bailly has been a good friend of mine since his days as sous chef at Ortolan, before which he was globetrotting with the infamous Joël Robuchon through Monaco, Paris, Macau and Las Vegas. While I happily cooked for my friends last year for my birthday, I decided to sit back and be pampered for the joyous occasion this time, allowing the French chef to shower me with his best caviar interpretations in his final week as Executive Chef at Petrossian Paris Boutique and Restaurant. He flourished at Petrossian for over a year, but it was time for him to move on to a different project to challenge his skills and take his creativity to a new level- he now helms the kitchen of Fraiche restaurant in Culver City.
Aristotle first described caviar as a prized delicacy in the 4th century B.C., and Ghengis Kahn’s grandson wrote about it in his journals in the 1240’s. These sturgeon eggs have been praised as one of the greatest delicacies on the planet, celebrated by Roman emperors, Russian Czars, Saudi sheiks and English kings for thousands of years. During the Roman empire, a jar of sturgeon roe was said to have been valued at 100 sheep. At one point in history, caviar was a privilege and the greatest culinary luxury reserved only for royalty. Many centuries later, its supplies became so abundant and accessible that it was served during free lunches in American saloons to boost beer sales. However, after years of overfishing to the point of near extinction, we are back to the era of treating caviar as a rare and expensive treat. These coveted jewels, under the spell of Ben Bailly, were transformed into one of the most decadent birthday dinners that I have ever experienced, making me feel like royalty for that one special night.
Blinis with crème fraiche and three kind of roes (salmon, trout and sturgeon) were the perfect starter, the eggs becoming more intense and briny as we moved from large to small. The Transmontanus caviar was the table favorite, its delicate little membranes popping inside our mouths as a rush of ocean breeze permeated into our nasal cavities.
Bailly is a master of mason jar delights, and one of my favorites, which he has thankfully continued to serve at Fraiche, is the luscious chicken liver mousse, whipped light and airy to a silky finish and topped with green apple gelée.
Another signature mason jar of Bailly’s is a rustic eggplant paté studded with raisins and Marcona almonds- creamy and smooth, with a hint of smokiness.
Cauliflower panna cotta, with its gentle flavors and perfect creaminess, served as the perfect textural and gustatory base upon which the incomprehensibly generous mound of glorious black caviar could shine. Spoonful after spoonful, the sweet vegetable custard proved to be a stellar pairing to complement the saltiness of the caviar.
My hands trembled at the thought of disrupting the picture perfect layer of tightly packed caviar in the dish called ‘caviar surprise’, served in a signature Petrossian caviar tin. A reluctant but thrilling first scoop into the tin revealed a hidden bottom layer of king crab meat suspended in apple cider gelée with a touch of crème fraîche, enjoyed on crispy toast wedges.
An assortment of saucisson, chorizo and salamis made the champagne and wine flow more freely than ever.
I have loved Ben’s foie gras crème brûlée since the first time that I ever laid my palate on it. A surprisingly light and airy rendition of foie gras, its gameyness so subdued and its flavor so elegant that it could easily pass for dessert, tucked under a warm layer of caramelized sugar and a dollop of sweet fig jam.
Salmon tartare topped with a thick layer of caviar and a sunny side up quail egg melted like butter in my mouth, the tender fattiness of the fish mingling with the salty caviar and runny egg yolk for consecutively fantastic bites that I never tired of.
‘Please make sure that you make me your Napoleon Tartare’, I had asked Ben, for his excellent steak tartare with caviar was the epitome of decadence, and the chef’s last week at Petrossian, coupled with my birthday, meant no holding back on either part. Hand chopped beef tenderloin with just the right balance of acidity and spices, layered with caviar in between and garnished with more caviar on top. Heap after heap on toasted crostini, I savored every long bite and let the flavors linger on my palate, patiently, slowly and deliberately, to make the moment last as long as humanly possible.
The little black pearls kept coming, plate after plate, even making an appearance on a pizza with crème fraîche, chopped eggs, red onions, capers and chives. I could hear Marilyn Monroe singing her song, ‘I prefer a man who lives and gives expensive jewels,’ as I bit into the crispy pizza and allowed the caviar to work its charm.
Smoked salmon pizza with crème fraîche, red onions and chives was no exception to the grand feast, with generous lumps of black caviar studding the bright pink surface.
Bailly’s version of Frisée aux Lardons featured a deep fried poached egg, warm yolk oozing like molten lava once cracked open, intermingling with crispy bacon, fourme d’Ambert cheese and spiny greens.
The panko crusted poached egg made another appearance on a bed of cippolini onion soubise in a dish called ‘Crispy Egg’, this time wearing a flashy black caviar top hat. The saltiness of the caviar gave the heavy cream sauce a nice lift.
Strawberries added a nice sweet touch to the seared foie gras dish served with red wine vinegar reduction sauce, one of the most successful foie gras dishes I have had in a long time. A relatively strong presence of acidity in the sauce coupled with the freshness of sweet strawberries and tossed greens kept the delicious foie gras dish light enough for our satiated appetites to finish it off completely.
A trio of desserts rounded out the caviar feast- rich and thick Gianduja parfait drizzled with caramel, Sicilian pistachio crème brûlée which has become a mainstay Petrossian classic, and a vanilla bean panna cotta with mango and mango pop rocks that titillated and excited my tongue.
‘A kiss on the hand may be quite continental, but diamond’s are a girl’s best friend…’
Stuffed to the brim with amazing food and satisfied beyond belief at the evening’s caviar consumption, I pictured myself as Marilyn, descending the red carpeted staircase being showered with spoonful after spoonful of Beluga caviar, perfectly tressed and impeccably dressed male suitors feeding me with endless bites of those delectable salty black pearls. Such a decadent feast may likely never happen again, but my ultimate dream was made a reality thanks to the talented French gentleman who, like the caviar he served, was this girl’s best friend.
** Note: all of the caviar used in this feast was the Royal Transmontanus Caviar, extracted from California grown sustainable white sturgeon **
321 North Robertson Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90048-2415
Chef Benjamin Bailly is now at
9411 Culver Boulevard
Culver City, CA 90232
Random trivia: Did you know that all sturgeon caught in British waters are the property of the Queen of England? If such sturgeon are not declared to the Buckingham Palace, one could face 6 months in prison and a £5,000 fine.