Before Putin, before the KGB, before the Bolsheviks even, the Russian empire was renowned for its luxuriant smoked fish, a rich culinary tradition that Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants would later import to America in the form of lox-filled counters and delicatessens. As anyone who has attended a Russian wedding can tell you, no Muscovite celebration is complete without Stolichnaya by the liter, chilled tins of caviar and dense, sprawling platters of smoked fish.
At Glendale's recently opened Seven Seas Gourmet Foods, an emporium of European delicacies located on the ground floor of a newly constructed luxury apartment complex, the full bounty of Russia's fish-smoking heritage is on display — literally. A wide glass deli case holds a dozen or so hot- and cold-smoked varieties: wild salmon, salmon belly, sturgeon, steelhead, halibut, escolar (capitan), paddlefish, mackerel, trout, eel and whitefish.
There are many other things besides seafood at Seven Seas — an adjacent deli case holds cured meats such as Spanish jamón iberico (the acorn-fed, 48-month-aged stuff goes for $130 per pound), prosciutto, salumi, rabbit paté and foie gras terrine, while other shelves are stocked with products ranging from truffle butter to French cheeses to artisan Italian pastas.
But your first stop should be the fish counter. This is because Seven Seas Gourmet Foods is owned and operated by Seven Seas Smokehouse, a North Hollywood producer that has been supplying Southern California with locally made, Russian-style, Kosher-certified smoked fish since 1991. There's a good chance you've seen their products before: Seven Seas supplies just about every Russian and Armenian deli in town, as well as larger supermarket chains such as Jon's Market and Super King. You may even have caught one of their commercials on local Russian television.
How is Russian smoked fish distinct from other styles? Well, if you're accustomed to the ethereal smoked salmon produced by local chef-turned-artisan Michel Blanchet, or the gentle, sashimi-like variety that Micah Wexler is known for at Wexler's Deli, then the robust flavor of Russian smoked salmon can taste about as subtle as a right hook. As Seven Seas Smokehouse Chief Executive Gregory Agadzhanyan describes it, Russians prefer their fish a little heavier on the salt and smoke than is common in, say, Norwegian lox, or Pacific smoked salmon. The amplified seasoning is an acquired taste for some, but many find it makes the sturdy fish pair perfectly with a dollop of crème fraiche and the thin, crepe-like pancakes known as blini, a quintessential Russian appetizer.
At the smokehouse, Seven Seas rubs each fillet with salt, then uses a blend of cherry, elder and other woods to cold-smoke the fish at a temperature low enough to impart flavor without cooking the flesh, producing that silky, lush texture coveted by aficionados. Once finished, the fish is sliced and vacuum-packed before it is sent out to local stores; the new location in Glendale, though, receives whole fish daily, which means customers are able to buy fish sliced to order, in the traditional style.
Seven Seas also imports caviar. At the Glendale shop you'll find a large selection of varieties, ranging from about $10 per tin to about $250. Ritzier options include Beluga and Osetra hybrids imported from Kazakhstan, but for the neophyte, moderately priced caviars sourced from sturgeon and paddlefish farms in the U.S. and Canada are perhaps a more advisable choice.
With the opening of a new retail branch, Agadzhanyan hopes to make his company's products accessible to an even larger audience, offering an affordable taste of luxury that was, centuries ago, reserved for Russian czars. 318 N. Central Ave, Glendale, (818) 396-5464, sevenseasca.com