Stogie's last gasp?

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.

Equally disastrous were the aurore quesadillas filled with shrimp, gorgonzola, and smoked chile in an aurore sauce. Nothing here meshed well. Served almost cold, the gooey, limp rolls held shrimp that were mercilessly clobbered by the musty-sock pungency of the gorgonzola. Plus the sauce, made with marinara, cheddar cheese, and jalapeno, had no bite to cut through.

Service was adequate on one visit and abysmal on a second. It was 15 minutes before our first server contact, with large spans of time between visits speckled with numerous frustrated requests for attention. But this seemed more the result of poor floor management than server ineptitude. Instead of focusing service in the den and dining areas separately, servers were shuttling back and forth between spaces, which are divided by a long stretch along the entrance and the bar. We had more visits from the cigar hostess who strolled around with a cigar box and a lighter--perhaps an illustration of where the markups in this place lie.

This Dallas venue is a prototype for a lounge Norris, Belushi, and their investors plan to expand in other states, targeting secondary cities, such as Denver, rather than major metropolitan areas. As it stands, it should be successful--as long as the cigar craze doesn't choke badly enough to smog out this mostly fine menu.

It's hard to pin down exactly what makes Tarantino's work. Every component in the place, from the atmosphere, to the location, to the menu, to the service, has its share of flaws--some of them striking. But the whole thing wadded up and bound together makes for such an eclectically entertaining experience that you find yourself wanting to return just to figure out exactly what it is that has you hooked.

Located in the former State Bar space across from the State Fair Music Hall, Tarantino's is in one of Dallas' few stretches of sophisticated urban grittiness. It's home to a few loft-residing artists and other cultural underground types as well as some oddball bars and shops basking in the art deco aura of Fair Park--perhaps the most depressingly under-appreciated urban jewel in the metroplex. It is long, narrow, and dark with black booth upholstery, tables, chairs, and other trim, and large abstract paintings on one wall with a pair of compelling portraits on the other by Dallas artists. Eclectic sounds--supposedly soundtrack cuts from 1970s European porno movies--are piped in at levels that are both crisp and conducive to conversation.

It's ripe with stark urban hipness void of the contrived, snotty remoteness that often makes these haunts just plain silly. The reason for this is the inviting appeal of Matt, Patrick (chef), and Peter (manager) Tarantino, the brothers/owners of this Exposition Park space who are from the same family that once ran Tarantino's Cafe and Deli on Abrams and Mockingbird a few years ago.

Tarantino's is really little more than a bar offering a small but well-thought-out wine list featuring selections from Spain, Italy, and Chile coupled with a selection of simple and sophisticated appetizers. Curiously demarcated by headings such as Act I, Scene II through Act III, the menu includes uncomplicated items such as an antipasta plate with a fresh selection of meats, cheeses, fruits, and daily additions; and the lively hearts of palma salad with artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, and olives in a light vinaigrette.

A selection of bread spreads constitutes what is perhaps one of the best watering-hole snacks ever assembled. Spreads include roasted garlic, a lively basil pesto, black olive pate, a lemon-caper cream cheese that surprisingly lacked assertiveness, a drippy pureed roasted red bell pepper coulis, and a light, smooth apple butter.

But things start to fray once the preparations get beyond the elegantly simple. The ceviche, with tender chunks of cod served in a martini glass, was thoroughly unappealing and suffered from a debilitating clash of acids and flavors that blanketed the mouth with an aftertaste reminiscent of reconstituted lemon juice. The bottom was doused with roasted red bell pepper coulis that, through the inexplicable wonders of food chemistry, foamed slightly, leaving a texture as off as the taste.

Stuffed with sausage, wrapped in smoked bacon, and slathered in a balsamic-molasses reduction, the quail featured a titan clash of concentrated flavors that fought each other into a blur of gustatory intensity while smothering the quail in the scuffle.

The pastry-coated beef, a special, featured an overdone, slightly tough bit of tenderloin with a dollop of horseradish pureed goat cheese with roasted shallots, sweet apple mango chutney, and roasted red bell pepper coulis painted on the side of the plate. You don't even have to taste this to anticipate the confused collision of flavors at work here. The rich, fruity sweetness of the chutney virtually canceled out the beef, while the bite of the horseradish goat cheese had a devil of a time breaking through to offer anything interesting. That dollop of puree with a better cut of meat and a splattering of the coulis toned of its sweetness would perhaps have been more successful.

Though eating here can be a hit-and-miss exercise, Tarantino's is a simple place with an edgy, compelling urban aura and an engrossing spirit that appears to be genuinely sincere. A menu tightly tailored to elevate, as well as shrewdly contrast, these characteristics would make this one of the best evening spots in Dallas.

Lone Wolf Lounge. 2727 Cedar Springs, (214) 965-9653. Open Monday-Wednesday 5 p.m.-12 a.m.; Thursday & Friday 5 p.m.-2 a.m.; Saturday 7 p.m.-2 a.m. Closed Sunday.

Tarantino's: 3611 Parry Ave., (214) 821-2224. Open Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 5 p.m.-Midnight. Closed Sunday.

Lone Wolf Lounge:
Lone Wolf cigars $9-$15
El Nino prawns $12
Matador medallions $14
Rosemary pork tenderloins $11
Tuna sashimi $11
Aurore quesadillas $13

Bread spreads $7.95
Antipasta $12.95
Hearts of palma $5.95
Ceviche $5.95
Quail $9.75


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