Despite this, some 16 years after the opening of his restaurant and wine bar, Juveniles, the French still flock there in happy droves. And the quirky Johnston is the main reason that adventurous Parisians have made a curious institution out of his cigar-friendly establishment.
The restaurant is a low-key establishment, and Johnston is probably the worst-dressed guy in the place, sporting, on this night, a black "Everybody must get Rhoned" T-shirt.
Wine is Johnston's strong point not fashion, and if a foreigner's going to have the balls to come to sell wine to the locals, he's the one who should do it.
"I had a group of four Australians come in one time and order haggis, foie gras, two other dishes, and they wanted one bottle to go with everything. I gave them a bottle of Shiraz and they ordered four more bottles before they left."
This is Johnston's sort of challenge, matching wines from around the world to what people have in front of them. His favorite customers are people who give him free rein by saying, "Here's our budget -- make us happy."
Over the course of a few hours, Johnston sends out an eclectic assortment of smaller tapas-like plates that range in country of origin from France and Spain to England and Scotland, paired with a vintage of his choosing. Wine selections seem to conform to his whim (or wine) of the moment, but he rarely errs.
For its food, Juveniles tends towards time-tested suppliers that speak for themselves: hams and sausages from French supplier Duval, French cheeses from Fromagerie Trotte and British Isles cheeses from Neal's Yard Dairy. Then there's MacSween's Haggis from Scotland.
"You expect it to smell of piss," quips Johnston, setting a plate down, "but it's far from it." Not only does it not smell of piss, my dining companion and I would order it again. He matches it with a glass of California Zinfandel (err…of course!) a 2000 Rosenblum Rockpile Road.
"I am a mad fiend for American Zinfandel," he says with Churchillian stoutness.
Next up is a simple fricassee of girolles and cèpes with a glass of his wine of the week, a surprisingly good 2002 Domaine de Vissoux Beaujolais. Yes, Beaujolais.
"It's your reward for trying the haggis," he says, placing both squarely in front of my dining companion.
So it goes at chez Johnston, all the way through dinner and desserts that include to-die-for tiramisu and Donald's chocolate cake.
As people begin rolling out the door, we light a Ramon Allones Specially Selected and a Partagas Serie D No. 4, following the menu's command: Cigars de la Havane uniquement -- Cuban cigars only.
Johnston has a wonderful knack for sliding just the right wine under your nose at just the right time in your cigar's life, giving the smoke an unexpected longevity, so I ask him to walk the uninitiated wine/cigar pairer through a cigar's life.
"I'd want to clean their palates when they arrive with a Champagne or a crisp white wine," he begins. Once the cigar is lit, Johnston would switch to "a big red wine with lots of fruit, maybe something like an Australian Shiraz." "Juves," as he calls it, has several on its list, including a '97 Mount Langi Ghiran and a '99 Penfold's Magill Estate, both at surprisingly modest prices.
"I sell the expensive stuff for retail plus 15 euros ($17)," he explains, blowing a breath of fresh air in the City of Light's dining circuit. For the middle third of a cigar? "Sherry or a dry amontillado."
I ask why Juveniles itself doesn't sell cigars (like it used to) and the answer boils down to red tape. "The complications of selling cigars in France are crap," he explains succinctly. "You [the restaurateur] have to buy from the nearest Tabac [tobacconist]." In other words, if that Tabac's offerings are crap, crap is what you're forced to offer. Some restaurants in town have figured out creative ways around the rules, but Johnston's efforts seem best directed elsewhere.
For the final act of a cigar, Johnston suggests a muscatel or a cream sherry, something to give the cigar what it needs to make it through to the end. "There are some people who drink Armagnac the whole way through," he says, but advises against the notion. "I tend to have a fuzzy head the next day."
Joe Ray is a Paris-based freelance journalist specializing in food and travel.
47 Rue de Richelieu, 75001 Paris
Phone: (33)-1 42-97-46-49
Lunch & Dinner 20 to 50 euros, not including wine
Go to Cigar Bar Central.