As most farmers know, the surest way to cure a sheep dog from chasing chickens is to tie him up in a bag with a dead one for a couple of hours. Similarly, I hoped that an evening in a noisy, smoke-filled room among yuppies puffing away with their ties flung over their shoulders might cure my husband of his passion for cigars. (Ten years ago, I had made him give up unfiltered Camels, which he liked to hang from his lower lip like Jean-Paul Belmondo. He obliged, but took instead to smoking a fat Partagas, which doesn’t have quite the same sex appeal, usually starting at 9 o’clock in the morning.)
I arrived at City Wine and Cigar Company a little late, after a tour by cab of the maze of streets below Canal Street near the Holland Tunnel. The layout of the restaurant comes as a surprise. It’s hard to believe this complex of vast, modern rooms is not in a new midtown hotel instead of a converted TriBeCa warehouse. To the left of the entrance is a large bar dominated by what looks like the bow of a schooner made out of bottles. On the right is an anteroom where labeled wooden humidors are stacked up behind a glass wall, like lockers containing ashes in a mausoleum. In front of this display, a blond woman and two young men in shirt sleeves sat at a table, smoking cigars.
When I entered the dining room, I felt like someone who had stumbled unexpectedly into the running of the bulls at Pamplona. The place was packed with brokers and bankers. Above the roar, disco music pounded from the sound system. One of my friends, almost obscured from view by the haze of cigar smoke that emanated from the five men at the adjacent table, was standing crossly in the corner. “They should quarantine these guys,” he muttered. But the maître d’ obligingly moved us to another table.
“What time does the classical music come on?” asked another friend. “Just kidding!”
City Wine and Cigar, which is owned by Drew Nieporent, started off as a club (members can store three cases of wine in the cellar and 100 cigars in their own humidor). The main dining room, done in tobacco tones, is sleek and plush; its polished copper tables, high, slatted ceiling and vast, glass-walled wine closet exude opulence. Ours was the only group without ties-but not, like most of the others, in shirt sleeves.
A female friend arrived and ordered a drink. “Do you mind if I smoke?” she asked politely before pulling out a pack of cigarettes. She offered one to my husband. He shook his head. “I only smoke cigars,” he said. “The smoke helps me get over my cat allergies.”
What kind of food do you serve with cigars? Chef Patricia Williams seems to know the answer. Her cooking is interesting and well thought-out, bold, spicy and sweet, with pronounced textures and strong tastes to complement big wines, not to mention cigar smoke.
Grilled shrimp were nicely charred, with a spicy coriander pesto. Calamari were lightly breaded with cornmeal and served with aioli and a salad of slivered cucumber and toasted pine nuts. The chef’s way of doing foie gras was daring-with chili-spiced leeks and tamarind, which went well with its richness-but the meat was cold in the center. A smooth, peppery black bean soup with crème fraîche was a satisfying dish for a cold night, and I also liked the arugula salad with orange and slivers of crunchy jicama.
“What is that awful smell?” demanded a friend who was eating a “martini salad,” a delicious combination of frisée, croutons and green olives filled with blue cheese. “It’s like burning rubber.”
“It’s more of an electrical smell,” replied someone else, looking around. I said nothing.
One of the best main courses was the jerk chicken, juicy pieces rubbed with chilies, piled on diced vegetables and topped with fried plantains. The hanger steak was good, too, well spiced and grilled rare with portobello and goat cheese quesadillas. It was a better choice than the rather flavorless sirloin. Braised spare ribs, falling off the bone, had a delicious sauce to be sopped up with jalapeño grits.
“Nobody here is wanting in any shape or form,” said my friend, glancing around the packed room where everyone seemed to be holding either a cigar or a cell phone. The scene needed someone like George Grosz, William Hogarth or even Otto Dix to do it full justice. “But there is an air of desperation around some of these office groups,” he added. “You feel they could suddenly throw each other down to the floor …”
Alas, it was not each other that they threw to the floor. At that moment, a woman at the next table, where there had been a good deal of shrieking, got up rather clumsily and, as she squeezed past us, knocked over my glass of red wine. As I was busily mopping it up with my napkin, her companion rose and proceeded to sweep the bottle upside down into my lap. As I was furiously sponging myself down in the (unisex) bathroom, the manager entered, looking distraught. He handed me his card and offered to pay the bill. When I returned, they had not moved us to another table, but they had given us fresh bottles of wine and mineral water.
At that point, I was ready for something chocolate. The hot Valrhona chocolate pudding cake, dark and gooey, hit the spot. Mango and coconut sorbet with tropical fruit salsa was also delicious, much better than the rather greasy blueberry corn fritters and the leaden plantain financier, a special of the day.
“Actually, I think they are on to a good thing here,” said one of my friends, glancing around the room. “This place acts as a Venus flytrap for these people.”
As I looked at the smokers, I thought of Groucho Marx. When he was on You Bet Your Life , one of the many segments that failed to get on the air was an interview with a woman who had eight children.
“Why eight children?” asked Groucho.
“I love my husband,” she said.
“I love my cigar,” he replied. “But I take it out of my mouth sometimes.”
CITY WINE & CIGAR CO.
62 LAIGHT STREET 334-2274
DRESS: Shirt sleeves and ties over the shoulder for men, suits for women
NOISE LEVEL: High, with loud disco music at night
WINE LIST: Very good but expensive
CREDIT CARDS: All major
PRICE RANGE: Dinner main courses $19 to $29
LUNCH: Monday to Friday noon to 2:45 P.M.
DINNER: Monday to Saturday 5:30 P.M. to 11:30 P.M.
BAR MENU: Monday to Wednesday 4:30 P.M. to 2 A.M., Thursday to Saturday to 3:30 A.M.
** VERY GOOD
NO STAR POOR