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Three-Star Heaven: Europe's Top Restaurants

| By Per Henrik-Mansson | From 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."

Some restaurateurs need all the skills of a world-class diplomat to satisfy their clients, particularly if ventilation is a problem. Eddie Khoo of Ménage à Trois in central London had just decanted a $450 bottle of Château Latour 1961 and was offering a glass to a client when, at the next table, a patron was lighting up a Montecristo No. 1 he had bought for $7 from the restaurant's list. The Latour man asked the Montecristo patron to put out the cigar because he couldn't taste the wine, but the cigar man refused, recalls Khoo. "So the Latour guy threatened to walk out. I gave the other guy some 1914 Armagnac and moved him to the bar. The cigar smoker finished half the bottle before he left. That's how complicated it gets when you have cigars and no ventilation."

Khoo banned smoking in the restaurant temporarily. Remodeled recently, the restaurant will allow cigars in a high-ceiling salon being refurbished as part of the project. Like Khoo, many other European restaurateurs are unwilling to give up on cigars despite the hassles. Instead, they are turning to special smoke rooms or other alternatives as they try to come to grips with growing pressure from customers and legislators for smoke-free areas.

In January 1991, Belgium became the first country in Europe to require all restaurants, bars and cafes to set aside nonsmoking areas. On January 1, 1993, the amount of space that must be reserved to nonsmokers increased from the current 33 to 50 percent, according to Patrique Doncq, spokesman for the Belgian-Luxembourg Tobacco Industry Association. While the law doesn't require separate rooms for smokers and nonsmokers, the restaurants must build often-expensive ventilation and smoke extraction systems so the nonsmoking areas are effectively smoke-free.

While seen as a nuisance by the restaurateurs, the law enjoys popular support. "The Belgians are rather antitobacco," says Doncq, "and the people think that these regulations are not that bad." But the legislation has reinforced the rights of both nonsmokers and smokers, and this has created some problems. "People are more aggressive since both the nonsmokers and the smokers feel they have the law on their side." The trade group Doncq represents runs a nationwide advertising campaign with the message, "Smoker or not, let's be courteous."

Until the European Community passes legislation restricting smoking in public places, a development many observers consider inevitable, the smoke-free issue is being tackled piecemeal on the continent. In Italy, the Ministry of Health proposed two years ago to restrict smoking in many public places, including offices and restaurants. But for the time being, cigar lovers can still light up in peace because no law has passed yet, according to Jean-Paul Truchot, director of the Paris-based Tobacco Documentation and Information Center (TDIC). In Spain, only Catalonia has passed legislation banning smoking in all public places except in areas specified for smoking. In Germany, hotels and restaurants have adopted self-imposed restrictions, but there are no laws requiring smoke-free areas. In Great Britain, the government proposed in 1991 a Code of Practice that recommended smoking be prohibited in restaurants catering to youths, like fast-food places, and limited in buildings visited by the public; the document also urged restaurant managers to "make efforts to cater to the interests of the nonsmokers."

This brings us to France. As of November 1, 1992, France followed Belgium's example and imposed nonsmoking areas in restaurants. The decree, which is an amendment to the Evin Law passed two years ago, bans smoking in cafes, hotels and restaurants and all other so-called public places, according to TDIC. Smokers may light up in these places but only in specified smoking areas. The new law is a hot topic of the day among French restaurateurs, and some chefs have challenged the decree in court. (The case is pending.) A smoker lighting up in a smoke-free zone can be fined $130; a restaurant not offering a smoke-free area, $1,300.

Alain Senderens of Lucas Carton, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris, loves cigars and calls the new law "intolerable." Says Senderens, "It is terrible that they limit our pleasure in that way. A cigar is gastronomy. It is part of the meal. Just like a cafe allows you to digest, a cigar continues the pleasure of the meal." His favorite match is old Madeira with a Ramon Allones, perhaps the Coronas Gigantes, a 7 1/2-inch double corona. "Aromatically, an aged Madeira is better than a Cognac or Armagnac. A Cognac or Armagnac with a cigar is like fire on fire. A cigar needs a drink with rounder alcohol. A mature Madeira has complementary aromas of cigar, old leather, like a horse saddle," says Senderens one afternoon as he draws on a Punch Punch de Luxe, a gran corona he describes as a perfect mid-afternoon cigar after a late lunch.

But like France's other restaurateurs, Senderens had to adapt to the new smoking law. Creating a separate room for nonsmokers was impractical at Lucas Carton, a one-room, 35-table restaurant located in a turn of the century building. Instead, the restaurant asks customers when they call for reservations whether they want to sit in a smoking or a nonsmoking area. Then, according to the bookings, Lucas Carton sets aside separate areas between smokers and non-smokers, leaving some extra space between the two groups' tables. On one recent night, only two tables were declared smokers. Smokers get tables just as good as nonsmokers, says Roger Moreau, the restaurant's manager. Some customers are afraid to declare they are smokers until they arrive in the restaurant because they fear being relegated to a bad table.

Since the passage of the new law, Tour d'Argent has set aside seven tables for nonsmokers, and that seems to be enough to satisfy all non-smoking clients patronizing the three-star Paris restaurant, according to maître d' Richard Durr. Customers are asked when they arrive in the restaurant whether they want to sit in the smoking or nonsmoking area. A little nonsmoking sign stands on the nonsmoking tables.

"People adapt because this law was passed for a good cause, for the health of the nonsmokers," says Durr.

At the Ritz, wine manager Georges Lepré says the bar is becoming a comfortable hangout for cigar lovers. "It is a paradise for the cigar crowd, a relaxed place to smoke, with views of the gardens and a piano."

With a good cigar taking about an hour to smoke comfortably, the dinner table has fallen out as a smoking venue for many cigar lovers, notes Lepré. Cigar consumption has followed the same downward curve as eaux-de-vie and hard liquor in the past five years, at least at the Ritz. The four-hour business lunch of yesteryear has also been replaced with shorter meals averaging about 90 minutes, says Lepré. "The new generation of executives spends much less time eating and consumes less of everything," he adds.

Still, it is more the business crowd at Hotel Le Crillon's restaurant, Les Ambassadeurs, in Paris that is likely to light up a cigar after the meal than the evening patrons, says Philippe Langlois, a maître d'hôtel. Customers can pick from a list of 17 Cuban and Dominican cigars. Davidoff s Dominican cigars sell well.

"It's like wine. There is a part of the clients which is very knowledgeable, and there is a part of the clients which goes for brand names. The name Davidoff is very famous, and the fact that it doesn't make Havanas anymore doesn't matter for some clients," says Langois. Cigar smokers are encouraged to light up in a large lounge, the Jardin d'Hiver, outside the restaurant. Langlois estimates that five percent of the clients smoke cigars, 15 percent, cigarettes and 90 percent drinks wine.

At Château Les Crayéres, Gérard Boyer's three-star restaurant in the Champagne capital of Reims, the staff has noticed a decrease in cigar smoking. "But some people who smoked cigarettes before now fall back to cigars, which is much better in terms of aromas," says Heil Wemer, the maître d'hôtel.

Boyer's list includes Montecristo No. 1 through No. 5, Romeo y Julieta Churchills, Partagas 8-9-8, Cohiba Coronas Especiales and Davidoff No. 1, to name a few from the two dozen cigars available.

In the past, Americans have outranked other clients complaining about a neighbor smoking during the meal, but lately French doctors, lawyers and businessmen have voiced their irritation with smokers. "Most smokers are polite. But it can happen that we get a difficult and stubborn client, who must change his table," says Wemer.

At Georges Blanc, the three-star Michelin restaurant in Vonnas, nonsmokers and cigar lovers coexist happily, thanks to a house rule that appears in fine print on the menu: "For the convenience of your neighbors, there is a salon-bar in the back for cigar smokers, at coffee time."

"People respect it," says Blanc. The new law about smoke-free space has encouraged even French clients to complain about smoke in the restaurant, something unheard of in the past, says Blanc, who doesn't smoke.

In advance of his time, Blanc divided up his restaurant in smoking and nonsmoking areas years ago, and the staff asks which area clients want when they make the reservation. The results: two-thirds pick the nonsmoking area, one-third the smoking area.

At Michel Guérard's health-spalike, three-star restaurant in Eugénie-les-Bains, in southern France, an extensive selection of cigars is available. "I understand you like a good cigar because that's part of life," says Guérard, who describes himself as a "one-pack-a-year cigarette smoker. And when a friend comes to see me and offers a cigar, I don't say no."

For a cigar lover faced with an increasingly antagonistic climate, Guérard's restaurant, Les Prés d'Eugénie, offers a relaxed environment because the restaurant opens onto the gardens and spa areas, and smoke is unlikely to bother anybody. "If we feel that a cigar is annoying him, we just ask someone to go to another room or to go to the billiard room," says Guérard.

If there is a place cigar lovers will feel right at home it is at Troisgros, the three-star restaurant in Roanne, where the late founder, Jean-Baptiste Troisgros, was big on cigars. He passed his love for an excellent Havana onto his son, the deceased Jean Troisgros. Now brother Pierre Troisgros continues to provide one of the finest cigar experiences any cigar aficionado may wish for.

Consider this: next to the 80,000-bottle wine cellar stands the walk-in, glass enclosed humidor, where the three-star Michelin restaurant's extensive collection of aged cigars rests in perfect condition. Walking down the stairs to the cellar are 120 museumlike pieces with cigar themes.

The cigar collection includes Davidoff's châteaux series, like Château Margaux and Château Haut-Brion, even though Troisgros finds these cigars are a bit excessively priced. Troisgros's own taste runs more to the Partagas Lonsdales ("a marvelous cigar") and the Partagas Lusitanias ("just delicious").

"I am not a big smoker, but I adore cigars because it is a just complement to gastronomy. I don't smoke the very fat ones. I am at the level of Montecristo No. 2 and No. 3," says Troisgros.

Somewhere in the restaurant, like Silva and Girardet in theirs, Troisgros keeps a cache of specialties that include some Rafael Gonzalez cigars which are hard to find in France. "That's the boss's box," says Troisgros proudly.

At top restaurants like Troisgros you can enjoy in peace a Romeo y Julieta Corona or a Punch corona after a grand meal. Even though the new antismoking climate in Belgium and France may be the beginning of the end of European tolerance to a distinguished tradition, no one is writing an epitaph for cigars. For people who care, smoking a fine Havana is a way of life worth preserving. No one expects the tradition to disappear.