During a recent dinner in Dublin, I was halfway through the polenta with shaved truffles—a specialty at the Tea Room in the Clarence Hotel—when I began to anticipate my after-dinner cigar. A Cuban Romeo y Julieta Cedros and a Sancho Panza were tucked in my cigar case, but I had no intention of lighting either. Both of these mild cigars would have been overpowered by chef Antony Ely’s rich, creamy entrée.
Instead, I selected a semi-rich, spicy Montecristo No. 2. The right cigar, like the right wine, can complement a meal by enhancing the food’s flavors. On this point, cigar smokers and chefs—cigar-smoking chefs, at least—agree.
Sandy Tuason, the executive sous chef at Fifty Seven Fifty Seven restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel New York, considers the evening’s entrée before choosing his cigar. Tuason reaches for a light-bodied Davidoff Aniversario, for example, after a dinner of warm coddled salmon, which he cures with brown sugar, cold smokes, and then cooks on a cedar plank. “The cedar really sets off the salmon, and then the cigar afterward,” he says. Tuason has even developed main courses that incorporate chocolate, which he says also pairs well with cigars. “I’ll coat a venison roast with cracked black pepper, coriander seeds, and juniper berries; make a sauce with venison stock, red wine, and cognac; then shave a light dusting of dark chocolate over the venison so that it melts into the meat as it is served.”
Although cigar smoking is often (wrongly) blamed for dulling the taste buds, many top steak houses maintain humidors. In Las Vegas, a meaty Honduran Hoyo de Monterrey Excalibur and a tercio-aged Vegas de Fonseca from the Dominican Republic are perfect finales to the Kobe skirt at Craftsteak and the 22-ounce porterhouse at Nine.
The goal is to complement, not compete, so many chefs suggest pairing smoke with sustenance of similar strength. “If I smoke a strong cigar before a meal or after an entrée, it fights with the food,” says Christian Rassinoux, executive chef at the Club Grill & Bar inside the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel. “The palate becomes overloaded.”
At the Tea Room, a simple bacon and potato dish calls for a mellow, light-flavored smoke. “The Cuban Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 will not overpower any of the ingredients,” says Michael Conrad-Pickles, deputy general manager and food and beverage manager at the Clarence.
For pasta, salads, and other light dishes, a Macanudo and the Dominican-made Ramón Allones fit the bill. Salmon, trout, and other oily fish call for a medium-strength cigar, such as an Ashton Cabinet or a Dominican Cohiba. Grilled wild boar chops with green peppercorn and Merlot sauce—one of Rassinoux’s specialties—and other heavier dishes are better suited to an Avo XO, a Cuesta-Rey Diamond Crown, or another moderately strong cigar.
As with trying new wines, the most satisfaction comes from personally discovering which blends and brands best complement your favorite foods—or vice versa. “Believe me,” says Larry Nicola, executive chef and owner of Nic’s Restaurant and Martini Lounge in Beverly Hills, “a Cohiba robusto tastes even better with food.”