Stogie's last gasp?

Lone Wolf sends it off with class and taste

The cigar trend is dead. So it isn't surprising that a spate of cigar bars are popping up in Dallas as fast as you can say Hoyo de Monterrey Super Hoyo--which might not be very fast. Last year a number of high-profile cigar salons hit Dallas: Avner's at Preston Caviar Bar and cigar den (now Ayrom's Caviar Bar); Laurels cigar lounge; and Lone Wolf, the new cigar haven launched by alleged actors Chuck Norris and Jim Belushi. It's all about hopping on a trend whose bow has just brushed up against the proverbial iceberg of reality.

"How can this be?" you ask. "Personal humidors are the current rage, and the price for a box of Davidoff Anniversary No. 1s surged 10 percent last year to $633." Yes, but while hordes of SUCKIes (suave urban cigar kitsch inhalers) were immolating strips of cedar to fire their H. Upmann Coronas last year, the shrewdest players on Wall Street were feverishly cashing out of cigar stocks. And then there's the baht, the won, and the rupiah, those pesky Asian currencies that won't leave our newspaper headlines alone.

Now maybe I'm just a hopeless sucker for the latest crisis, but somehow I don't see how the convulsing currencies of a region so critically entwined with our import and export markets won't come to burn us in the stogie butt sometime soon.

"What the hell do currency markets have to do with fine cigars?" you ask. Well, just like Dom Perignon and Porsches were the status symbols of '80s, cigars and Lincoln Navigators are icons of the '90s. And look what happens to status symbols when crisis strikes: After the '87 crash many people were wondering if all future Porsche models would be manufactured by Corgi. Plus, our '90s status symbols have anti-smoking nazis and Al Gore to contend with. So it doesn't look good for the cigar.

Which is why you'll want to get your butt over to Lone Wolf before the trend line goes south and Mr. Norris snuffs it. For the cigar smoker--real or alleged--it's hard to imagine a better space for public vice-flaunting. The rich glassed humidor stocking some 30 cigars, including Lone Wolf's own brand, is the cornerstone of an even richer-looking smoking den with leather chairs, couches, private smoking rooms, and stogie table service. Though Lone Wolf is not a private club, handsome cedar-lined humidors and other amenities--including the opportunity to reserve tables, rooms, even your favorite smoking chair--are available for "club members." (Memberships cost $850 plus monthly dues of $50 for individuals, $2,000 plus $100 in monthly dues for corporations.)

There's also an elegant wood- and mirror-trimmed bar serving premium liquors, wines, and champagnes; an open kitchen with counter seating; and a dining area with hardwood floors bordered with Berber carpet, a pair of large booths, raised bar-table seating, and a stage for live music. General manager Bill Valentine says conversion of the space, which once held The Joint on Turtle Creek, came to nearly $800,000--$100,000 for the air-purification system alone. And that system, noisy though it is, seems to sweep the air pretty well.

Which is a mighty good thing, because cigar smoke and food are mortal enemies, and Lone Wolf serves up some fairly respectable upscale appetizer plates. Current offerings will expand to include five entrees, two salads, and four desserts sometime in February. In the meantime, chef Richard Santiago, who has done stints at the Double Tree and Harvey Hotels, has assembled some striking dishes, which could prove to be Lone Wolf's lifeboat once the cigar craze wanes.

Tuna sashimi, loose sushi-like rolls of seared tuna crusted with peppercorns and wilted spinach wrapped in black seaweed, was a striking visual construction with a pair of toasted strands of Asian spaghetti sticking out of each roll like TV rabbit ears. The flavors and textures could have been seamlessly smooth and savory, but the dish was marred by slices of sinuous, chewy tuna.

Rosemary pork tenderloins--grilled pork infused with rosemary oil topped with fried onions and served in an apple, pineapple, and mango chutney--proved better. The small slices of pink, tender tenderloin married extremely well with the tangy sweetness of the chutney, though the plate seemed overwhelmed with the stuff, almost losing the meat in the chunky flood.

Perhaps the best item on the menu was the matador medallions, shingles of Black Angus beef topped with horseradish cream in a red onion marmalade. Though the meat was a bit overcooked--yet tender--the interplay of flavors worked almost flawlessly while it flirted with disaster. The smooth, almost luxurious cream sauce had just the right level of horseradish bite that brilliantly played off the implied sweetness of the marmalade, a concoction made with sauteed onions added to a red wine and red wine vinegar reduction that's toned down with a little sugar. Surprisingly, these flavors didn't cancel any of the meat-sweetness of the beef, but clarified and elevated it to the point where it had the feel and richness of a decadent dessert unencumbered with overt sweetness. Quite an achievement.

But things crashed from there. The El Nino prawns, gulf shrimp slathered in a glace of honey maple syrup and brown sugar spiked with cracked pepper served atop roasted red pepper and saffron orzo, had a viscous, palate-canceling sweetness up front followed by a prickly heat that kicked up at the back of the throat with each swallow. It was all rather clumsy and void of middle-mouth flavors to effectively flesh it out, assuming that would be possible.

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