Caviar is synonymous with luxury. More so than steak, or truffles, or even saffron, caviar is what you speak of when you want to evoke black-tie galas, crystal stemware, the world of the 1 percent. The fussiness of its service — don’t you dare let anything but a spoon made from mother of pearl touch it — descends from that of its origins. Retrieving the intact eggs by basically performing a C-section on very specific sturgeon is a hell of a way to get an appetizer.
Caviar is also, obviously, an animal product, and while there are debates as to whether vegan cuisine should or shouldn’t attempt to mimic meat, a caviar service of blini and creme fraiche and herbs and chopped eggs is one of many things vegetarians and vegans (as well as anyone who can’t afford it) have done without. Products that could be considered “vegan caviar” have long existed, but the fanfare of the caviar service has remained for meat eaters. However, the past few years have seen an increased interest in plant-based eating, and the rise of not just vegan restaurants, but vegan fine dining. Vegan caviar is the new luxury.
The newly vegan (except for the secret meat room) Eleven Madison Park added a vegan caviar service to its $335 tasting menu, serving tonburi seeds in a packed cylinder, with lettuce wraps in place of toast points, and vegan creme fraiche. Tonburi, also known as land or mountain caviar, has been used in Japanese cuisine for hundreds of years as a caviar-like garnish — Daniel Humm specifically highlighted the ingredient on his Instagram, saying it was an “essential ingredient of the Akita Buddhist Shojin-Ryori cuisine.” It consists of the seeds of the summer cypress tree, boiled and hulled, to reveal a sphere with a vegetal flavor and that classic caviar pop.
EMP is far from an innovator here, even if it brings the biggest spotlight to date. In 2017, PYT in LA served a tonburi caviar service, with accoutrements like corn, cashew cream, and capers. “I was first introduced to tonburi in 2002 by one of my Japanese purveyors, while at the Michelin three-star New American tasting menu restaurant Manresa,” chef Josef Centeno told Eater. PYT was a vegetable-focused restaurant, and Centeno said “it seemed appropriate to do a vegan take on caviar service,” though he also wanted diners to understand tonburi and caviar are not the same. For service, he mixed tonburi with “fermented and lacto-fermented grains and seeds to add depth to the experience.”
Other restaurants have mixed other ingredients into tonburi, or used different ingredients altogether, to evoke caviar. Ian Jones, the head chef at Elizabeth in Chicago, said they’ve had more guests requesting its vegan menu. “With us being a fine dining restaurant I feel like we need to offer some luxury ingredients throughout the dinner,” Jones said, “so tonburi came to mind to replace our caviar course.” However, Jones has had a difficult time sourcing tonburi from Japan for the restaurant’s “‘caviar’ + fresh tofu” dish,