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Three-Star Heaven: Europe's Top Restaurants

Per Henrik-Mansson
From the Print Edition:
Groucho Marx, Spring 93

Midnight is nearing, and chef Jean-Pierre Silva is coming out from his kitchen, a Sancho Panza Belicosos gripped between his fingers, to relax with guests in the bar lounge of his two-star Michelin restaurant, Hostellerie du Vieux Moulin, in Burgundy.

"It's a fantastic cigar," says the dark-haired Silva, drawing on the slow-burning Havana, a 5/2-inch-long figurado that he bought on one of his regular cigar buying trips to Geneva, a cigar lover's shopping Mecca. "It's rich and unctuous and yet not aggressive," he adds, closing his eyes in obvious delight. "It's one of the best cigars at the moment."

But you won't find the cigar on the restaurant's regular list. There is some good stuff on that list, including Punch Punch, Partagas 8-9-8 and Cohiba Robustos, Cohiba Lanceros and Cohiba Coronas Especiales. The Sancho Panza Belicosos is part of Silva's private collection, dubbed Cigares pour les amis (cigars for friends). It includes such top-flight smokes as Partagas Lonsdales, Partagas Lusitanias and Partagas Series D No. 4, a 5-inch-long robusto.

French law, not Silva, dictates which cigars resting in his humidor get onto his official or private list; cigars bought outside the French state-controlled tobacco distribution system may not be sold in restaurants. Under that rule, Silva may only sell cigars bought at the closest authorized tobacco store. In Silva's case, that's Michel Friquet's Tabac La Havane in Beaune, about ten miles from the country town Bouilland, where Hostellerie du Moulin is located. As to the rarer gems Silva picks up in Geneva from such merchants as Gérard Pére et Fils, sorry, but money won't do. Befriend the chef, though, and he might unlock his humidor and offer a smoke from his personal collection.

Bureaucracy and archaic rules about tobacco, however, are a fact of life for European restaurateurs, even though in the past, there weren't any antismoking regulations. The sweet aroma of fine cigars always enhanced the joys of Europe's finest cuisine, as the perfect ending to a great meal. Yet some troublesome, if as yet somewhat uncertain, developments on the antismoking front could have an impact on what traditionally has been a laissez-faire attitude about cigars, and smoking in general. Belgium and France have already enacted antismoking laws, and there is talk in Brussels that the regulations could spread to the entire European Community. But the continent's top-rated chefs aren't about to give up their humidors, or their passion for cigars.

"The problem with cigars is that there are a lot of people who are against smoking," says Fredy Girardet, as he and three cigar loving guests gather in his famous Swiss restaurant around a humidor on wheels (built and lent by Davidoff). It contains more than 200 cigars, all from Cuba. Girardet disappears into the kitchen for a moment and comes back with some long, unmarked cigars to offer the guests. Girardet gets a smile on his face, just like someone who has pulled a rabbit out of his hat, when discussing his personal cache, kept somewhere near the kitchen.

Unquestionably, cigars are down but not out in Europe's top restaurants. At Girardet's, there is still a demand for fine Cuban cigars, and none is more popular than Dom Pérignon, the 7-inch Churchill from Davidoff (priced at $28 but no longer produced) and the Davidoff No. 2 ($20), according to maître d'hôtel, Jean-Louis Foucqueteau. The patrons' penchant for a fine Havana is such that, he says, "Mr. Girardet doesn't want to see any Dominican cigars here."

Offering a wide choice of quality cigars can be a tough job, particularly if your prized humidor burns down. But at Im Schiffchen, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Düsseldorf, Germany, chef-owner Jean-Claude Bourgueil is rebuilding his cigar collection after an employee set fire to the place in 1988, leveling the restaurant and its $10,000 cigar collection in its custom-made, wooden humidor on wheels.

"We sell a lot of cigars," says the French-born Bourgueil, especially Montecristos and Partagas. Cigars, he adds, took off in Germany during the boom of the 1980s, when customers wanted to try only the best, from drinking mature vintages of Château Latour to smoking a Dom Pérignon.

In the '90s, Im Schiffchen reports fewer cigar smokers, a trend Bourgueil attributes to Germany's leading role in the "green" movement. "The Germans have become antipollution and anticigarette champions, and a lot of people don't smoke anywhere anymore," the chef says. In his own 45-seat restaurant, he forbids pipe smoking. "I can smell it all the way into the kitchen," he says. Anyone lighting up a pipe will get a notice carried on a silver plate by a waiter that requests the customer extinguish it. "But unlike pipes, I like the smell of cigars. And cigar smokers are usually polite and cultivated. About 99.9 percent of cigar smokers light up after a meal, while pipe smokers may smoke between dishes."

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