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Petrossian Caviar's Restaurant Is Affordable, Excellent

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When Petrossian Caviar first opened a beautiful little restaurant adjacent to their boutique caviar-and-chocolate shop on Robertson, I had dinner with the father and son who own this legendary business and told them of my 60-year-long history with their Paris location at 144 rue de l'Université, beginning in the mid-50s when the franc was low and my appetite high, when Iranian beluga caviar was still available, affordable and the Shah of Iran ruled his country and its Caspian Sea fisheries with an iron fist. So much has changed in the interim, but my appreciation for fine caviar and iced vodka remains indefatigable.

Caviar, yumm

The first chef at the Petrossian Paris Restaurant & Boutique (321 N. Robertson Blvd, at Rosewood, (310) 271-0576, across from Eddy and Silvio's popular Il Piccolino, street parking) was an ego-driven albeit talented toque, and he garnered much attention and fine reviews, leaving several months ago for another larger spot where he tweeted his daily accomplishments 'til he suddenly left. Replacing him at the Robertson restaurant nine months ago was an equally talented and much more self-effacing (and lovely) 27-year-old woman named Giselle Wellman, with impeccable credentials (Jean-Georges and Mario Batali's Del Posto in Manhattan and Bouchon here). After several visits, I have a vast appreciation for what she could (and has) accomplished to make this her own venue. Has she ever! Although I am known for rather excessive enthusiasms, I can confidently say that this is one of the most exciting, lovely and gastronomically satisfying restaurants in our city. A rather hidden gem which deserves a much wider and more appreciative audience. (Hopefully, Huffington Post readers and loyal subscribers of Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter will take heed and frequent it.)

Chef Giselle Wellman

Chef Giselle Wellman is the 27-year-old talent who has transformed this lovely spot as her own.

This week I dined there with my niece, Cindy Winebaum, an appreciative and experienced food person, and we marveled at the exquisite attention to detail and flavor of the various offerings as we ate our way through the menu. I had lunched there with Bernie Weinraub some months ago and came away with memories of one dish, the Napoléon Tartare ($28), an ethereal dish of hand-sliced steak tartare gently seasoned and formed into a rectangle, then layered in the center with a spread of caviar. Served with a pinch of baby greens seasoned with black truffle oil and a few shards of crisp toast, I said to Cindy that I doubt if anywhere else in the world someone is eating this same exact dish, more's the pity.

Napoleon Tartare

The ethereal Napoleon Tartare, hand-chopped prime beef with a layer of caviar in the center!

Egg Royale

The Egg Royale, an eggshell filled with scrambled eggs and vodka cream topped with caviar.

At which point she was delicately spooning up the scrambled egg with vodka whipped cream and caviar from the Egg Royale ($14) eggshell in front of her. I recounted how I first had tasted a similar preparation at the old L'Orangerie which, in the '90s, cost $24. We had each enjoyed a bowl of Crab Corn Soup ($16) which began with a shard of Dungeness crab set in the bowl (which also contained fennel, a cherry tomato, Serrano chili, avocado and lime) into which the chef poured the warm soup (with no cream) from a teapot. I had followed it with a delicious Caviar Salad ($22), butter lettuce, shaved egg, shallots, chives, parsley, lemon, dill, crème fraiche with caviar. Cindy had the Mediterranean Summer Salad ($16), couscous, Coppa peaches, cauliflower, arugula, pistachios. So summery. I had spotted a new dish on the menu, Squid Ink Fettucini ($24) and we shared one portion, the black pasta dressed with wild California sea urchin, curry, and salmon roe. Nina DeLuca, who co-owns the two Trattoria Amici eateries with husband Tancredi, had told me of her appreciation for the Prime Beef Burger with Fried Egg ($20), a magnificent burger made with two-year-old aged cheddar, cippollini jam, bacon, chilies, arugula, lemon aioli, served with crispy French fries. Nina had also told me about the off-menu Smoked Salmon Pizza, which I will try shortly on my next visit. (Yes, I will be coming back here regularly, that is how much I love it.)

Petrossian interior is stunning

The stunning, bright interior of the small cafe, which also has a few patio tables.

In looking at the various smudged notes I wrote during recent visits, I had made much of the Chips & Dip ($18), which was a caviar dip with sweet and purple potato chips. On that occasion, the chef sent out two small glasses of palate-refreshing soup, a cold Borscht ($10) with warm Yukon gold potatoes, chives, crème fraiche and caviar. I had enjoyed the Smoked Salmon Bagel ($20, an extra $8 with caviar, which I think you can forego). The hand-carved smoked salmon here is exemplary, and the chef hollows out the bagel so it is not doughy, toasts and butters it, then layers it with cream cheese, capers, red onions, mixed greens. (Nate 'n Al, eat your heart out.) The golden Croque Madame Sandwich ($16), is made with Black Forest ham, Comté cheese, and arugula salad. Main courses include a sensational Flat Iron Steak in a rich red wine sauce with celery root puree and cumin-sprinkled carrots, and a wonderful, moist Scottish Salmon ($28), the fish served with Morel mushrooms à la Grecque, Serrano ham, faro, leeks, whole-grain mustard, drizzled with honey. For dessert there is a Vanilla Panna Cotta ($8), unbelievably good made with espresso caviar, cardamom, shortbread cookies. Lemon Tart, A Taste of Chocolate ($18, with several of their signature chocolates), and an Almond Crème Brulèe.

Squid Pasta

Squid Pasta was topped with shards of sea urchin, a dish so delicious I ordered a second.

Blinis with caviar

Tiny blinis topped with various caviars are an affordable way to sample the different varieties.

A word about the retail space and café: L.A designer David Davis drew on a palette of grey cerulean blue, a color used from the time of Louis V and Madame Pompadour, for the exterior, matching the Petrossian shops in Europe and Manhattan. I like the vivid red lettering he used on the façade of the marquee. I noted that he used deep blue Galucha, a synthetic stingray skin with pebbled surface reminiscent of caviar pearls. The dining room is elegantly casual, featuring tasteful artwork from nearby Gomez ArtWorks. The beautiful flowers are from Flowers For All Occasions. Tables are set far apart and soft jazz permeates the background. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the Robertson scene; in fact, the extraordinary 15-foot ceilings are accented by exposed turn-of-the century Paris steel trusses. There is outdoor seating on the street side of the boutique shielded by rose plants.

General Manager Chris Klapp is such a knowledgeable wine and beverage professional that the wine list is rather amazing, very well priced... although you can find some pricey gems on it. I brought him a bottle of the Justin Isoceles to taste, a rich red wine which goes so well with their caviar and other dishes. I drink Belvedere Vodka from Poland with my caviar, although I am careful when driving not to overdo it. I told my niece about the two Armenian brothers, Melkoum and Mouchegh Petrossian, along with the latter's wife, émigrés from Russia, who had opened their Paris shop in 1920 to introduce the pleasures of caviar to a willing world. Her family was one of five behind the fame of the budding caviar industry in imperial Russia at the beginning of the 19th century. Today their descendents, led by father Armen (he of the ever-present bowtie and swashbuckling moustache), and sons Alexander and Robert, have also opened boutiques in Monaco, New York and Las Vegas... with the revamped L.A. being the latest. The patriarch of the family told me at our dinner: "For nearly 90 years, we have been recognized as the foremost purveyor of fine caviar from all over the world. Today, with supplies of Iranian and Russian caviar difficult to impossible to obtain, we have scoured the world and often initiated the production of fine caviar from a variety of farmed and sustainable sources. Kazakhstan, China, Israel, the U.S., but also from France, Germany, Bulgaria. I know that caviar has a solid place in today's unpredictable consumer market. Over 85% of the caviar now sold in the United State is California-raised in eco-friendly ways," he told me. "Now it is a small indulgence that no longer requires splurging, since American caviar is delicious, eminently affordable and a way to support the California economy." Amen. In these days of uncertainty, we all need small moments of pure pleasure... and what can bring one more satisfaction than a taste of good caviar?

Who would dream that in a sparkling little café on Robertson I would experience some of the great meals of my life? My first dinner was a last-minute drop-in with film director Fred Levinson. I told General Manager Klapp that we wanted to start with a caviar service... but my tight budget would only permit about a hundred dollars for the treat. He smiled and said it was a given: with the assistance of our lovely waitperson, Melissa, he quickly returned with an iced bowl containing a small tin of Alverta ($138), caviar from a Northern California white sturgeon. Served with a half-dozen each of fluffy blinis, sour cream and chopped egg, the caviar was nutty, smooth and robust, small dark beads. I asked why no red onion and Chris indicated that Armen Petrossian felt that the onion was only used to mask inferior quality eggs. Other caviars are available at varying prices: Ossetra, with its medium-sized greenish-gray beads;
And two new farm-raised, delicious offerings, Shassetra ($155) from Schrenki sturgeons, a lively taste with notes of dried fruit and the taste of the sea, medium-sized beads (my first choice now), and the 50 mg presentation of Kaluga ($491), from the Huso Dauricus sturgeon, a mellow, rich and buttery note of medium to dark gray beads, spectacular.

I find it hard to contain my enthusiasm for such extraordinary food in a casually elegant setting at prices which will question your sanity, or rather that of the Petrossian family for keeping them so reasonable. But I fully expect that the word will quickly spread about this brilliant young woman chef and her extraordinary dishes waiting for unknowing diners on Robertson. I suggest you go before you can't get in!

Now serving from 11 am to 10 pm Monday through Friday, 10 am to 10 pm Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm on Sunday. Happy Hour is 4 pm to 7 pm Monday to Saturday, and they have a full bar.

To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues), email him at jayweston@sbcglobal.net.