Wining, Dining And Puffing Away

ROB KASPER'S MARYLAND

March 10, 1996|By Rob Kasper

First there were dinners matching wine with food. Then came dinners matching beer with food. Then cigars with food.

That's right, stogies -- big, long symmetrical servings of tobacco, set on fire. The idea was to arrange an evening so that neither the flavor of the food, nor the flavor of the cigars got snuffed. This theory was elegantly stated by Steve de Castro and Manuel Quesada one recent night while we were sitting in Ruth's Chris Steak House shortly before a cigar dinner -- a benefit for the expanding Babe Ruth Museum -- was about to ignite.

De Castro is the proprietor of Ruth's Chris Steak House. With its polished-wood walls, crystal chandelier and regal appointments the restaurant looks like an inner sanctum, like the kind of place you would carve up a duchy or two as you puffed a good cigar.

Indeed, the restaurant encourages that kind of behavior among its customers, at least the puffing part. De Castro has equipped a banquet room with a ventilation system designed to swallow smoke and keep it from the rest of the restaurant. The restaurant also sells cigars, which its customers can light up in the specially equipped dining room or in special areas of the bar set aside for such pleasures.

Last year the restaurant played host to about 10 dinners celebrating cigars, including one for women only. On the night of the Babe Ruth dinner, the restaurant closed to the public and let the smokers roam.

Quesada, a cigar manufacturer, flew up from the Dominican Republic to speak to the Baltimore gathering about fine cigars. The menu for the evening contained tasting notes on the flavor of the cigars as well as descriptions of the food and wine. The first cigar of the evening, a Cubita No. 700, was passed around as the guests sipped on cocktails and wine and ate appetizers. The tasting notes described the cigar as "a mild Dominican with some spice."

It made its presence known. The restaurant's bar, occupied by men in tuxedos and women in evening wear, soon became a smoked-filled room.

Earlier de Castro and his chef, Eric Littlejohn, told me they were not afraid of smoke overwhelming the appetizers. Having played host at a handful of previous cigar dinners, they had developed a menu that they felt could stand up to cigars.

The grilled scallops wrapped in bacon, one of the evening's appetizers, had potent flavors that they said married well with a glass of good bourbon and a powerful cigar.

I puffed the Cubita No. 700 and ate the scallop appetizer. I liked the scallops. As for the cigar, all I could say was that it was better than a Roitan, the kind of cigar my dad smoked, and the standard by which I measure the few cigars I smoke.

Compared to the elegant offerings at the dinner, the Roitan was a lesser cigar, a Chevy among Mercedeses. But a Roitan provided me with my primal cigar experience. It happened on the Fourth of July when I was about 12 years old. My older brother and I had run out of "punks," the slow-burning sticks we used to light fireworks. Instead of punks, we used one of my dad's cigars. Mostly we just carried the cigar around. Occasionally we had to puff the cigar to keep it from going out. By nightfall the sky was aglow with the rockets' red glare, and my brother and I were green from cigar puffing.

I can't say my palate detected the "spice" that the tasting notes said was in the Cubita No. 700. But I enjoyed it and, unlike the Roitan, it didn't make me ill.

There was a pause in the cigar smoking when we sat down and feasted on seafood courses and their accompanying wines. These dishes, the chef had ruled, were too delicate to share the spotlight with cigars. A lightly spiced shrimp remoulade was served with a sharp 1993 Carmenet White Meritage. A creamy baked crab dish arrived with a rich 1993 Chalone Chardonnay. By the time we finished the third course -- a hunk of blackened tuna matched with knockout 1993 Acacia Pinot Noir -- I was ready to go home happy.

But this wasn't the end of the evening. This was halftime, a pause between courses. More cigars appeared. We had a choice between the Cruz Real No. 19 Maduro, a 6-inch-long Mexican cigar, and a shorter Lambs Club, a blend of leaves from Ecuador and the Dominican Republic.

Puffing on the Lambs Club reawakened old appetites in me. A few minutes later when the large, well-marbled hunk of prime New York strip arrived in front of me, I dug in. Suddenly I had the appetite of a much younger man. I ate the whole delicious thing.

However, when the chocolate sin cake and the 10-year-old Fonseca Tawny Port arrived with a cigar, I was puffed out. So I saved this 7-inch stogie with a name similar to the port's, Fonseca 10-10. I also saved another big fella that was passed out, a 7-inch Ashton Churchill. I had enjoyed cigars, some scallops, shrimp, crab, tuna and a sizzling steak. It had been an evening that the Babe, rarely a man of moderation, would have enjoyed.

Pub date: 3/10/96

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