Quick! What's an hors d'oeuvre that says, "You're special enough for me to spend some money on" but at the same time is easy to pull together? That would be smoked salmon, of course, loved even by those who don't like fish for its mild but still rich, smoky taste.
The hard part is figuring out what kind to buy. Nova. Scottish. Irish. Norwegian. It's a confusing world out there. Nova, or Nova Scotia salmon, actually has little to do with any one geographic location. Rather, it has come to mean a broad category of lightly smoked Atlantic salmon. Scottish and Irish smoked salmon sometimes represent two slightly different smoking techniques but the salmon itself is also from the Atlantic, though much of what is sold here is "farm-raised" Atlantic salmon, as opposed to wild salmon. (To muddle matters further, salmon from the Pacific also may be smoked salmon, though it is not as available on the East Coast as its Atlantic counterpart.) Do not confuse smoked salmon with either gravlax or lox. Gravlax is salmon that has been cured in salt, sugar and dill; lox is a brine-cured cold-smoked salmon known for its salty taste.
Mel Krupin, the District's own deli king, waves away a lot of these distinctions, though. "A fish is a fish is a fish," says Krupin, who sells Nova and belly lox at the Tenleytown restaurant-deli that bears his name. "Any time you put a label on it, it becomes more expensive." To him, Nova really just means the fish came from the Atlantic and has had no salt added during the smoking process.
We tested Nova where it was available, Norwegian where it wasn't. Looks matter with salmon, so go for a fish that's as fresh as possible, with none of the tell-tale signs of a salmon that's been in the deli case for too long (crusty edges). Ask for a sample to make sure you like what looks good. And make sure it's sliced nice and thin. Even the best salmon can come off as chewy if it's cut too thick.
DEAN & DELUCA Looks rarely deceive when it comes to smoked salmon, so we had a pretty big clue that the Norwegian salmon ($32 per pound) from this Georgetown purveyor would rank fairly high on our list; it was easily the best looking of those we sampled. As for taste, it hit all the right notes: oily but not too oily, smoky but not too smoky, with a texture that was smooth and silky. It was also sliced thin and packaged with care. Available at Dean & DeLuca, 3276 M St. NW; call 202-342-2500.
COSTCO Party-givers swear by the well-priced 1.35-pound package of this warehouse store's Norwegian salmon ($9.79; purchased at the Pentagon City store), but it fell slightly short with our tasters. They felt it was a little too salty and a bit crusty around the edges. Available at all Costco stores.
EATZI'S Only two varieties of the Acme brand of pre-sliced, prepackaged salmon were available on the day we hit Eatzi's, so we put the All Natural Eastern Nova ($4.99 for four ounces) to the test. It looked great--so great, in fact, that the taste itself was somewhat of a disappointment. Nice texture, too, but the flavor was, well, a little bland. Available at Eatzi's, 11503-B Rockville Pike, Rockville; call 301-816-2020.
KRUPIN'S RESTAURANT Mel's Nova was good-looking and beautifully sliced, with a pleasantly mild and mellow taste. If anything it was perhaps a little too mild. Available at Krupin's Restaurant, 4620 Wisconsin Ave. NW; call 202-686-1989.
SUTTON PLACE GOURMET Call ahead if you've got your heart set on one particular variety of smoked salmon. Sutton offers eight, but was out of the whole Norwegian salmon when we stopped by the store on New Mexico Avenue; we ended up tasting a pre-sliced, prepackaged version of the same Norwegian variety that Sutton Place usually slices to order. It had a strong smoky taste-- reminiscent of bottled smoke--and was a little slimy, but otherwise okay. This month, all of Sutton's smoked salmon is on "sale" for $28.99 per pound; next month, they'll be $1 to $6 more per pound. Available at Sutton Place Gourmet stores.
GIANT We tried the pre-sliced Nova ($21.99 per pound) and the more expensive cut-to-order Nova ($27.99) from the Westbard store in Bethesda and were disappointed by both. Each had a strong fish taste, but it was the dry, rindlike edges of the pre-sliced version that were really disagreeable. Available at Giant stores.
MAGRUDER'S What we bought at the Connecticut Avenue store was labeled Norwegian salmon ($19.99 per pound), but it sure tasted like brine-cured lox. It was too tough, too dried out and too strong. Available at Magruder's stores.