Smoke signals from New York

RICHARD EHRLICH'S beverage REPORT
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The Independent Culture
"He Pressed his face to her hair, brea-thing in the intoxicating scent of stale smoke from a Davidoff Double 'R'. As their lips met her mouth yielded to his and she tasted heady traces of Fuente Opus X in his mucous membranes. Their clothes dropped to the floor..."

Let me explain that the excerpt above comes from Cigars on Fire. This best-selling yuppie novel is set in and around cigar bars, the current craze in Manhattan. Cigars are big in New York. And they're getting bigger.

Once upon a time, cigars were seriously un-cool. Remember James Caan chomping on a stogey in The Godfather? Now they're a fashion accessory for the Chardonnay generation and Demi Moore fills the cover of Cigar Aficionado magazine, stogey in hand and wreathed in art-directed smoke. Demand is so great that the best cigars are rationed by producers.

Manhattanites adore the warm, self-congratulatory feeling that comes from ingesting the best in public. Freud may have admitted that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but in New York it's a symbol of discernment and wealth. Thus, according to Brandon Holley, food and drink editor of Time Out New York, "every bar or restaurant opening now has a space set aside for cigars." There are now around 200 such bars; two years ago there were four. And Sal Perillo of Senor Swanky's (287 Colum-bus Avenue) says 10 open every day.

The trend has two tasty ironies. First, it's illegal for Americans to buy Cuban cigars; the fight against world communism must go on. Second, cigars and strong drink seem at odds with the American obsession with health. They console themselves by pointing out that cigars don't cause lung cancer, but they do cause others, so the claim doesn't hold much mineral water.

It matters not a bit for patrons of The Cigar Bar at Beekman Bar & Books (889 First Avenue). BB&B is one of a trio (soon to be quartet) of upscale bars decked out to look like a clubby library - never mind that the books seem to have been bought by the yard. The effect is refined and worldly, especially in the Cigar Bar itself, a small room at the back with a $25 minimum per puffer. That sounds like a lot, but not if you order a Limited Edition Dunhill Chairman's Reserve ($50) and Remy Martin Louis XIII ($125 a glass).

While I didn't get to see that place when it was smokin', I did spend time at a new joint called City Wine and Cigar Company, in TriBeCa (62 Laight Street). This is a serious restaurant-bar where the cigar room has a resi- dent expert to guide you through the choices ($4.50 to $30 for a rare Partagas 150). By 6 on a Friday even- ing, half the people at the bar were puffing away. Most were guys in suits, brandishing hefty brown tubes (with varying degrees of assurance) and talking guy talk. Overheard: "did I tell you I'm going stag-hunting in Scotland?" Freud would like that one.

It's not only in bars that New Yorkers go cigar-crazy. Wine merchant Nancy Maniscalco, of Nancy's "Wines for Food" (313 Columbus Avenue), reports that tobacco takes top billing on some customers' menus. "They want a good wine to go with cigars - and some ask where they can go to buy them." They need hardly bother, since the highly-rated Ansonia restaurant one block away (329 Columbus) has its own cigar area. Senor Swanky's is even closer, and its pretension-free cigar menu offers suggested pairings of smoke and liquid.

Which combinations work best? My enquiries suggested that people stick to their favourite drinks, whether from grain or grape. Red wine is popular, but so are whiskies, Cognacs and Armagnacs. Vintage port is booming in New York at the moment (driving up prices worldwide), and I can imagine that a good specimen would coat the tobacco-furred tongue nicely. The Swanky's list includes a number of superior aged tequilas, and these too make sense. As a non-cigarist, I am in no position to judge, but expert informants say that a good drink brings out the flavour in the cigar. Whether the cigar does any favours for the drink must be a matter of opinion.

Cigars may be booming now, but New Yorkers get through crazes like a baby through toys. Eventually they'll move on, and Holley can't wait. "Cigar bars are the shoulder pads of the food business, some day we're all going to be very embarrassed about them."

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