The High Life

At his hillside home on St. Barths, Eric Benn treats friends to Champagne and caviar.
Text by Susan C. Kim

If the French Riviera were to collide with the Caribbean, the result might be the island of St. Barths. Think yachts, dark sunglasses, and mopeds careering around jagged green hills dotted with bright orange rooftops. Add a few hairpin turns and a fleet of Cessnas landing at the seaside airport and you have a scene right out of a James Bond movie―dubbed in French, of course.

"It's informal and elegant at the same time," says Eric Benn, co-owner of Manhattan's Bubble Lounge, who has a hillside getaway on this tiny island. "I am Franco-American, so St. Barths reflects the best of both worlds for my personality and my origins," he says. This evening Eric is celebrating St. Barths' relaxed glamour with a holiday Champagne-and-caviar party. He may cellar more than 300 different labels, but his humble life experiences (he worked as a messenger in Paris and picked bananas on a kibbutz before establishing the "bubbly" bar) contribute to a desire to demystify Champagne for everyone's enjoyment.

Eric tells guests there's no right way to enjoy sparkling wine. With a little prodding, he divulges his favorite combination: Chinese food or pizza with a glass of bubbly. "Champagne is perfect with salty, oily foods," he says. He also offers a few expert tips: Avoid Champagnes with greenish foam, which means the grape stems were pressed along with the juice―a surefire recipe for a hangover. Don't think you have to buy only Champagne. The word denotes sparkling wine produced in a specific region of France, but others are equally delicious. Sip Spanish cava, Italian prosecco or spumante, or American bubblies. And remember that expensive brands are not always better. "Try boutique wineries that grow their own grapes," Eric says.

When it comes to caviar, he is a fan of Tsar Nicoulai, serving it to customers at The Bubble Lounges in New York and San Francisco. The salty delicacy pairs so beautifully with Champagnes that he's serving it poolside this evening. Deborah Keane Damond is a guest as well as a caviar expert. She says a good rule of thumb is to pair saltier and oilier caviar with drier sparkling wines. "Air and heat are evil," she adds. Too much of either will destroy the fine "pop" that chilled caviar leaves on the tongue. Deborah suggests opening caviar last and keeping the fragile eggs over ice.

Or, like this festive group, do caviar shots right away. "Eating caviar off the back of the hand is a tradition started by the Russians to avoid double-dipping spoons," Deborah explains.

In another nod to tsarist tradition, Eric grabs a prized bottle of Grand Siècle Laurent-Perrier and dramatically slices away the top of the bottle with a large chef's knife. His friends go wild. Leave it to Champagne and caviar to get the party started, anytime, anywhere.