It's hard to name a fancier food than caviar. When served traditionally, the fish eggs are transported from dish to mouth via a petite mother-of-pearl spoon. It's also one of the most expensive comestibles around, with tiny cans of select Beluga caviar selling for hundreds, even thousands, of dollars apiece (where it's legal, of course). Such facts can certainly be off-putting for someone new to the caviar world. It's easy to assume the food is a treat for the crown, not the commoner.
If there was ever a team capable of correcting the above misconception, it’s surely the one behind Petrossian, a nearly 100-year-old family operation with storefronts in Paris, New York, Brussels, Dubai and West Hollywood. Open since 2001, the Robertson Boulevard location has had a loyal following for years. Recently, though, repeat customers might have spotted a few menu alterations — the reasonable result of a kitchen change-up that brought chef Alex Ageneau to the helm last November.
Born and raised in France, Ageneau didn’t taste caviar until he started working in Michelin-starred restaurants, and the road to those positions was neither short nor easy. At 15, Ageneau was a poor student with a mohawk and a propensity for punk rock. He abandoned books in favor of a butcher shop apprenticeship, where his morning routine included breaking down whole pigs for the cold cases. He also helped cater events over the course of his three years at the shop. The catering company's chef, who worked regularly in Paris restaurants, inspired Ageneau to later attend culinary school.
“He was always making sauces — beurre blancs — and I thought they were amazing,” Ageneau said. “I started to feel more passionate about restaurant life and cooking. Butchering wasn’t delicate enough.”
In 2001, a formally trained Ageneau arrived in the United States. His experience, along with solid recommendations from previous mentors, helped him jump from one acclaimed restaurant to the next — Les Nomades in Chicago, Patina in Los Angeles, Sinatra in Las Vegas, Paris Club in Chicago. No matter where he was or who he answered to, Ageneau learned, watching each chef to see how his or her style shone through their dishes. After his most recent move to Southern California, Ageneau got the same opportunity, acting as opening chef for Santa Monica’s aestus before taking the executive chef role at Petrossian.
“I did get to a point where I felt like I was denying my French roots, and I didn’t like it,” he said. “I didn’t want to change who I was. Here, I am focusing on great French cuisine. It is lighthearted and playful, though we still take it very seriously.”
When asked for an example of this French-elegance-meets-California style, the chef cites a newer addition to the Petrossian menu: a caviar salad that nods to the traditional wedge. The dish’s foundation is a miniature artisan iceberg lettuce half, topped with creme fraiche dressing made with smoked sturgeon (which Petrossian smokes itself). It is then adorned with caviar, chives, egg, trout roe and dried cod roe.
“It’s light and crisp but still tastes like Petrossian — it maintains a French profile while being relatable,” Ageneau said.
As close as he is to caviar these days, Ageneau is still willing to admit that it’s not for everyone — complex like wine, with distinct flavor notes and textures. Those willing to ease themselves into the water might heed the following suggestions. Begin with roes from fish such as trout and salmon, as the eggs are less compact and a bit more mild in flavor. Then move into true caviar, but keep it simple: Creme fraiche and bread is all you need. Champagne? That’s great, too.
“More is not more in this case,” Ageneau said. “Caviar is best on its own or with a little creme fraiche and blini — beyond that, you can’t really appreciate the caviar.”
And forget the stuff about it only being for royalty. Ageneau agrees that caviar still holds that kind of weight in France — it’s a go-to dish for a celebration there — but in America, where “we want things when we want them,” caviar can be an everyday thing.
“You can come to Petrossian for brunch and have caviar — really good caviar — for $40,” he said. “That’s pretty incredible.”
Another way to get acquainted with the delicacy is Petrossian’s 301 Caviar class. Held the third Thursday of every month, the experience costs $125 per person and includes a caviar flight and a four-course meal. It’s also a great chance to see what Ageneau’s up to — he likes to use the event as a testing ground, gathering feedback from guests once they’ve tried out new creations. A recent one was an apple tart with caviar chantilly cream.
Ultimately, Ageneau aspires to become the type of chef whose work is a resoundingly clear reflection of the man behind it. He cites Michael Voltaggio as someone doing just that. Raquel Carena of Le Baratin is another — an Argentina-born chef cooking in Paris who Ageneau says has created an aesthetic all her own.
Ageneau continues to tinker with his own skills and style. His repertoire currently includes a leg of king crab poached slowly in lobster butter and served on saffron risotto with summer squash and peppers. He’s also happy with the Alaskan halibut, poached in a sauce of white wine, shallots and an infusion of smoked fish. Folded into the mix are caviar, trout roe and chives.
The key, he says, is to let Petrossian’s quality product shine — to keep things simple but not boring. That thought brings him to reflect on how his own cooking philosophy has matured with age.
“I like young chefs because they are all over the place — this [plate] is genius, this one terrible,” he says with a laugh. “Now, I’m getting into the age of confidence. You trim down, you remove excess. Your craft is better. Maybe there is no genius anymore, but everything is great.”
321 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 271-6300, petrossian.com.