Sturgeon General

There's so little time to stock up on champagne and caviar for New Year's Eve and so few places in South Florida to purchase the requisite provisions. You can go try your luck at a gourmet emporium like Epicure or Gardner's, or maybe scoot up to Macy's in Aventura. Or, if you've got your heart set on the best beluga money can buy, you can try to track down Igor, who's likely to tote an ice-packed cooler of the prized sturgeon roe right to your back door.

That's where Allen Susser met Igor a year and a half ago A at the back door of his North Dade restaurant, Chef Allen's. Dressed in a loose baggy shirt and green trousers and speaking with a heavy Russian accent, Igor confided to the critically acclaimed chef that he was in the possession of caviar from Astrakhan, one of the premier harvesting regions in all of Russia.

"I get all sorts of Russians at the back door, saying, 'Will you buy my caviar?' Susser says with evident glee. "I say, 'Open it up, let's taste your wares!' We sit, we haggle, and we taste caviar." If the caviar is good, Susser buys it. Igor's caviar, says Susser, was excellent. So good that Susser became one of the Russian's regular customers, and he's touting Igor's eggs on the New Year's Eve menu at Chef Allen's.

While Chef Allen's habitues might be surprised to learn of the clandestine origins of their "Black Market Osetra Caviar Sundae," proprietors of some of South Florida's most fashionable stores, along with suppliers to some of the nation's most exclusive restaurants, describe a world market of caviar as byzantine as it is bizarre.

Mitchell Thal, part owner of Epicure Market in Miami Beach, is reluctant to describe his caviar transactions in detail. He'll only say that his store purchases Russian caviar "from the Caspian Sea on private arrangement from individual importers." Like Susser, he is occasionally accosted by mysterious merchants of dubious nationality, hawking their high-priced wares. "They come in and it's almost like a drug deal," says Thal, mimicking the peddlers: "'Pssssst! You want to buy some caviar?' There are many, many disreputable dealers. Anyone from airline stewards to so-called friends of friends who will actually try to sell you caviar out of the trunk of their car."

Thal says his practice is to send such dealers on their way. His own Russian connections date back to the mid-1980s, during the salad days of perestroika, when a middleman hooked him up with his current supplier. "We had a blind tasting, like you do with wine, and a number of customers and staff participated," Thal remembers. "We unanimously selected the one that we carry."

Back then, the Soviet Union and Iran had a monopoly on caviar production in the Caspian Sea, home to 90 percent of the world population of sturgeon, the prehistoric fish whose roe constitutes the creamy black delicacy. A handful of smugglers worked as freelance caviar suppliers to Europe and the United States, but the black market didn't really explode until the early Nineties, after the Soviet Union's disintegration, which splintered the Caspian region into five independent states (Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Iran) and two autonomous Russian republics (Dagestan and Kalmyk).

While Russia, Iran, and Azerbaijan theoretically control the caviar market through state enterprises that oversee fishing, packaging, and exporting, in practice any fisherman can hook a sturgeon, salt the eggs in his bathtub, and peddle them in the West for $15 to $50 per ounce. In fact, poaching had become so rampant by mid-1992 that Russian fishery officials began predicting the sturgeon's imminent extinction.

As supplies dwindle, caviar importers are increasingly desperate for top-quality roe. "Nobody has beluga but us," crows Eric Sobol, vice president of the New York-based Caviarteria, one of the nation's biggest caviar distributors. (Caviarteria charges $645 for fourteen ounces of beluga, $319 for osetra, and $259 for sevruga. At Epicure, the prices are $225 for a seven-ounce tin of beluga. Osetra goes for $125, sevruga for $98.50.) Sobol denies that his company buys caviar on the black market, which he disdains as "Polish guys smuggling caviar in their suitcases." But he's vague about how Caviarteria has managed to procure what he says are the best stocks of the Russian state. "It would be foolish of us to divulge too much information," he insists. He does, however, hint at complicated backroom arrangements. "The only thing that's happened [to the caviar industry] as a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union is that now, in the actual plant, you deal with the production manager, the factory managers....Everybody wants to get into the act."

For Susser, that sounds like too many hands fondling the extremely perishable merchandise. He says he'll stick with Igor's supply, because he knows exactly what he's getting. "I can see it, smell it, taste it," he explains. "If I even have a slight doubt, I can turn it away."

A quick survey of some of Miami's high-end restaurants reveals that other local chefs are more reticent about their contacts with salesman like Igor. Mark Militello, proprietor of Mark's Place in North Miami and Mark's Las Olas in Fort Lauderdale, says he relies exclusively on a Maine-based importing firm. "You don't try to pick up a Mercedes at a used-car dealer," the restaurateur scoffs. But Pascal Oudin, head chef at the Grand Bay, admits that if he personally tests the caviar's quality and finds it meets his strict standards, he'll buy it from an unknown dealer.

Yet as Susser describes his encounters with Igor, it's clear that he's attracted by something more than on-the-spot product inspection. When Igor and his ilk lug their chests of caviar to Susser's little corner of Aventura, they bring to Chef Allen's the whiff of Caspian intrigue and the medieval atmosphere of a Middle East marketplace.

"I wouldn't call them shady characters," Susser asserts, bridling at the suggestion that his suppliers might not have acquired the requisite import licenses. "They're well-meaning business people. They're individuals working in a business that they've grown up in." And most important, Susser points out, his men know their caviar. Just last week, as astonished restaurant workers peered into the kitchen, Igor taught the chef a new technique for evaluating osetra, a medium-grade nutty-tasting roe.

"Instead of tasting it off a silver spoon, you taste it the same way you'd lick the salt from your hand before drinking tequila," Susser explains. "You put a small amount of caviar on your fist and then smell the residual amount on your hand. It was very interesting, because it really did work.


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