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Restaurant Tours: cigar smoking not prohibited

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As USA Today is fond of reminding us, ascetic health consciousness is on the wane, and self-indulgence is back in fashion. If so, that's fine with Nathan Jarvinen. The fortysomething real estate developer so relishes a good cigar that he converted the first floor of one of his residential properties into a cafe that would accommodate his leafy love. As Jarvinen, who lacked any prior experience in the restaurant business, puts it: "I created this restaurant to have a place where I could smoke cigars without getting kicked out."

The Distant Mirror Cafe, located in Rogers Park, features a flamenco guitarist playing near the door, an alabaster head that sags like a collapsing souffle, lamps shaped like exotic sea creatures, and, behind the bar, two large humidors stocking various sizes of Avos and Don Linos (described and priced at the tail end of the menu) as well as an ever-changing collection of hard-to-find cigars. The restaurant is intimate, seating only 34 diners, but the larger of its two dining rooms is reserved for nonsmokers, and there's a special ventilation system that according to Jarvinen circulates three to four times the amount of air required by the restaurant code.

One recent night a ponytailed power broker in a double-breasted suit muttered into a cellular phone while puffing on his cigar and winking at his stylish date. A petite publishing executive in her 30s also enjoyed a stogie, observing, "A good cigar isn't as strong as a cigarette, and it's more fun to hold." On a typical evening, about 20 percent of patrons smoking cigars are women.

Jarvinen's daughter Tania, who works as hostess, explains that the name for the restaurant came from the title of a Barbara Tuchman book on the Middle Ages. She also points out, ignoring a waitress's warning of possible paternal wrath, that Jarvinen painted one of the restaurant's hanging murals. Jarvinen later sheepishly confesses to having created the work as a college freshman, because although penniless, he "wanted something to hang on the wall."

Dinner begins with an appetizer of creamed blue cheese marinated in brandy and served with toast rounds. A salad follows, accompanied by thick slices of toasted bread and a warm, spicy tomato-and-garlic salsa.

Entrees--chicken, beef, venison, shrimp, tuna, or a combination of these, accompanied by fresh vegetables--are cooked by patrons themselves on a hot stone slab at the center of the table. Since food cooks quickly on the 425-degree stone, conversation occasionally suffers while companions save one another's momentarily forgotten meals from imminent incineration. Five tasty sauces are provided for dipping the end results; tamarind with apricots and pimento with chili pepper are two standouts.

The idea for this unusual style of cooking came to Jarvinen after a trip to Geja's Cafe for fondue. He chose stone instead of oil as his cooking medium for two reasons--first, it seemed to fit better with these health-conscious times (a point to ponder while smoking an after-dinner cigar); second, the dry cooking encourages experimentation with dipping sauces.

Dessert is worth leaving some room for, especially the estilo cantabrian quesada (cheesecake with rum and cinnamon) and the chocolate torte, lightly flavored with espresso. The cafe stocks a good selection of wine, about half Spanish and the rest French and Californian (Jarvinen believes Spanish wines currently offer good value for the money). The bar also features a small but carefully selected variety of sherries, madeiras, cognacs, and single malt scotches, as well as a remarkably good ale-style home brew made by a friend of Jarvinen's. Jarvinen based his bar selection on a single criterion: "drinks that go well with cigars."

Jarvinen himself is partial to pyramid-shaped cigars. As described on the menu, "These irregularly shaped, handcrafted cigars . . . smoke cool and smooth with loads of flavor, and are also wonderful to hold and delightful to gaze at." Although he notes wistfully that they are nearly impossible to find, Jarvinen holds a special place in his heart for the Cuban Montecristo #2 and the Cohiba robusto.

The Distant Mirror has hosted a couple of prix fixe dinners at which guests sample a variety of cigars and spirits chosen to complement each other and the meal that precedes them. In the future, these events will feature special guests. Jarvinen is trying to persuade Avo Uvezian, the maker of Avo cigars, to attend.

Regular dinners, which include appetizer and salad but not dessert, range in price from $11 to $20. However, when the last ash has been tapped, the bill may be substantially higher, depending upon one's taste in cigars and spirits.

Distant Mirror Cafe, 7007 N. Sheridan, is open 5:30 to 11 Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 12:30 Friday and Saturday, and 5 to 10:30 on Sunday. Call 761-3776.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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