James Leavey's Corner
Eat, Ignite A Cigar And Be Merry

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by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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James Leavey
They may be thinking of banning tobacco advertising in Britain's media, but at least they're leaving our tastebuds alone.And jumping on the let's-all-get-politically-incorrect bandwagon is a growing host of fine, smoker-friendly restaurants in London to cater for famished cigar aficionados, many of whom have been elbowed out of less tolerant eating establishments.

It's ten years since the Berlin Wall came down but in London, the Russian Revolution in fine cuisine has just arrived at the Soviet Canteen, in Chelsea.

Every dish is based on an authentic recipe, not just from Russia, but from across the former Soviet Union.Classics given a fresh British twist by Head Chef Michael Soutar (formerly of Mon Plaisir) include Fillet Beef Stroganoff, Chicken Shashlik (marinated, grilled and served with walnut satay and pomegranate chutney) and Krupnik Crme Brulee (flavoured with Polish honey spirit).

The two and three course set menus are very reasonable at 12.50 and 15.50, respectively, excluding drinks and service.A three course a la carte meal with wine averages around 25 per head.

They don't sell cigars but Soviet Canteen do the next best thing, they allow you to smoke them at six of their well-ventilated tables (best to check that one's available, when making your reservation - the same applies to all the other restaurants listed in this article).

"We aim to bring this largely overlooked cuisine to a wider audience," explained cigar-loving manager, Alan Cotterell."Our cooking is not stodgy; as you'd expect of Eastern Bloc-influenced food instead, it's light, tasty and healthy."

It's also complemented by a carefully chosen line-up of 35 Russian and Polish vodkas, ten unique cocktails and an international selection of Old and New World wines chosen to complement the food, not the theme.There are no gut-wrenching wines from Chernobyl here.

As well as the usual blinis, caviar and borscht (each given a new lease of life), try sampling the Ukha and Rastegai (fish concomme with salmon pastry parcels) and Riga Telnoe (lemon sole fillets wrapped around a mushroom filling). Perestroika!

The only thing that is likely to sink well at Titanic is the excellent food, which includes fillets of bream and sea bass, posh fish and chips, grilled tuna with aubergine caviar, cold poached salmon, and smoked haddock colcannon, as well all the meat and veg and puds you'll ever want for.

Breakfast is served from midnight to 3am, for early risers, and cigar smokers are very welcome - if your humidor has run out there's a limited selection of fine Havana and Dominican cigars for sale, including Bolivar No.1 and Davidoff Special 'R'.

Titanic attracts shoals of celebrities, including Dale Winton, and there is no dress code.Just come as you are and be prepared for a bit of rubber-necking while you wash down the food in opulent surroundings and smoke to your heart's content.

Mariners should also set course for Catch, a new restaurant and champagne bar in Kensington, specialising in freshly prepared seafood and shellfish, andtapas-inspired finger food.

The brainchild of business woman, model and polo player, Sophia Burrell, who says Catch is concentrating on 'neighbourhood dining,' (some neighbourhood!), providing quality food in a stylish and intimate atmosphere.

The high ceiling encourages the drift of cigar smoke up and away from whatever intimate binge you're enjoying, hopefully without infringing on neighbouring non-smoking diners' nostrils.

If you find yourself marooned in London, this is a good place to cast your net, and dive in.

For those of you who have never eaten in Cuba (and be grateful for small mercies), don't let this put you off Asia de Cuba in St Martin's Lane.This concept restaurant is already a big hit in Los Angeles and New York, but don't let that put you off either.

The menu may be a gimicky mix of Asian and Cuban cuisine but at least it tickles the palate.There are wonderful concoctions such as Chinese Five Spice foie gras (yeah, well); Cuban shredded beef (I never saw a cow, alive or dead, on the Caribbean island when I was there) spring rolls; lobster Mai Thai cooked with rum, coconut, red curry paste and wok-crispy bonito.

It's a pity they don't serve the anaemic fried eggs (without the benefit of yolks) I once broke a tooth on in the Hotel de Nacional, in Havana.It was a once-tasted-never-ordered-againdish that is also not available at Che, the restaurant, bar and cigar lounge in St James's Street, neatly positioned between Davidoff's and JJ Fox's cigar emporiums.

Proprietor, Hani Farsi, loves cigars and claims his basement lounge offers the widest selection of Havanas in any bar, restaurant or club, in the world.There's a stock of over 12,000 cigars and around 80 different types (not to be confused with brands) available at any one time, including at least 20 different types of pre-Castro and pre-Embargo 'sticks'.

This is a cigar smoker's haven, named after the Argentinian revolutionary leader, 'Che' Guevara, with a wide selection of fine international dishes and wines to match.

Guest barmen from all over the world are invited to regularly take over the stunning ground floor bar, and the first floor restaurant's kitchens are overseen by award-winning chef, Julian Marshall, previously at the Lanesborough Hotel.

If you don't feel like going out to eat, the next best thing is to invest in a copy of Andy Gravette's new book, Classic Cuban Cookery (Fusion Press, 10.99), fill a large jug with Cuba libre (rum, cola and ice cubes, stirred), daiquiri (rum, lemon juice, sugar, marsachino and crushed ice, shaken) or mojito (rum, lemon juice, sugar, soda, mint leaf and ice cubes, stirred), and sip it through a straw while you attempt one of the book's 100 authentic recipes for yourself, and cigar-friendly family members and friends.

Then sit back after a fabulous Cuban meal with your favourite Havana cigar.Magic!

Asia de Cuba, St Martin's Lane, 45 St Martin's Lane, London WC2. (0171 300 5500)

Catch, 158 Old Brompton Road, London SW6. (0171 370 3300)

Che, 23 St James's Street, London SW1. (0171 747 9380)

Soviet Canteen, 430 Kings Road, London SW10 0LJ. (0171 795 1556)

Copyright James Leavey, 2000.All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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