Just as Caviar Russe was making its way onto every New Yorker's must eat list in 1997, the roof caved in...literally. The facade of an adjacent building on Madison Avenue on Manhattan's Upper East Side crumbled, sending tons of brick and mortar onto the top of the five-story brownstone-style building that housed the restaurant. The street was blocked for days, and a tunnel-like contraption covered the area and blocked the restaurant entrance for many weeks. The eatery was forced to close for nine months.
In late 1998, owners David and Marianne Magnotta began the slow and cautious process of rebuilding the restaurant and its clientele. Since scaffolding remained over the building entrance, they didn't want a large number of demanding patrons right away. Nevertheless, caviar lovers came in droves.
If you consider yourself a caviar aficionado, then this small, stylish restaurant is begging for you to sample its wares. It remains a hidden, and largely unknown, gem among the specialty caviar restaurants in the city. For added pleasure, it has a separate dining room where cigar smoking is allowed.
The restaurant's menu is simple. It's built around caviar in every way (except dessert, of course), and given the small size of the kitchen, the preparations rely on that simplicity.
Yet, the caviar is not your supermarket variety; it's of the highest caliber. David Magnotta is also managing director of Caspian Star Caviar, one of the largest importers of caviar into the United States; its client list includes all the major cruise lines, airlines and most of the top restaurants in New York.
Caviar Russe was conceived as a way for Caspian Star to open a retail counter in the city, and the company's caviar can be purchased. But the Magnottas wanted to showcase the product in an upscale, comfortable setting, in part inspired by Marianne's family history (her grandfather is Jerry Burns, one of the founders of the "21" Club).
The main caviar menu includes all the major categories, from top-of-the-line beluga, to lesser varieties, and is priced accordingly. The triple 000 beluga starts at $100 for 50 grams, while 50 grams of pressed caviar costs $35. You can also order spoons of caviar ranging from $9 for beluga to $4 for sevruga. The menu includes traditional smoked salmon and blinis at $16, or $39 if served with beluga.
Among the restaurant's other signature dishes are chilled, poached Chilean sea bass with Maine crab and morels for $24, or $47 with beluga, and a tartare of prime aged sirloin with beets, parsley and black truffle for $18, or $41 with beluga.
The Grand Seafood service is a mountain of fresh shellfish, including lobster, crab, oysters and crayfish; the price for two people is $60, and with beluga, that climbs to $106. The platter is one of the most magnificent seafood combinations anywhere and rivals those usually associated with top-ranked Parisian bistros.
There are two tasting menus: the $55 version consists of four courses, plus dessert. The $75 menu serves up four caviar treats, plus cheese and dessert.
The wine list is well chosen with the requisite bubbly selections and white wine. The excellent selection of Champagnes includes Bollinger Grand Annee, 1990 ($125), Pol Roger Winston Churchill, 1988 ($220), Krug Clos du Mesnil, 1989 ($440), and Dom Perginon from several vintages, including the 1964 ($750).
Since this is a restaurant with Russe in the title, it has 18 vodkas, representing nearly every major producer in the world, served at $9 a shot; the selection includes Absolut, Ketel One, Grey Goose, Belvedere, Stolichnaya and Finlandia.
But for cigar aficionados, the real attraction at Caviar Russe is its fireplace room, which is located toward the back. The haven features seating at five modest tables with chairs covered in red velvet, and a humidor on the mantle filled with Dunhills and Montecristos, among other brands.
Bring your cigar if you like, and eat in the room, or retire there afterwards. If you're like most caviar lovers, you will feel as if you're in the lap of luxury.
538 Madison Avenue
Phone (212) 980-5908
Dinner $35 without caviar, $60 and up with caviar