DINE As a child growing up in a smoke-filled room called America, I developed the skill of distinguishing among various sorts of fume — and there was a lot of distinguishing to be done, since all the adults around me were puffing away at some glowing protuberance or other. They were like human smokestacks. Cigarette smoke, to the child’s nose, was piercingly nasty, while pipe smoke sweetly asphyxiated, especially in the back seats of cars. Cigar smoke, however, had a no-nonsense robustness that made it bearable, at least if one rolled down the window from time to time and stuck one’s head out for gasps of fresh air.
Recently I have had occasion to rethink this hierarchy, and now I find cigar smoke fully as awful as the other kinds. It hovers, clings, and smothers, and this is bad enough if you’re just trying to breathe, let alone trying to eat, as you might be at the six-year-old Cigar Bar and Grill near Jackson Square. Tobacco smoke powerfully interferes with our sensations of taste and flavor. On the other hand, there is something to be said for the spectacle of strapping 25-year-old lads (many with their Yahoo ID cards dangling from their belts) manfully chomping on their rolled cylinders amid swirling wreaths of smoke. Did they remind me of baby robber barons, or of little boys clopping around in their fathers’ shoes, wing-tips five sizes too big? I thought of Bill Clinton, of course (who managed to do more for the notoriety of the cigar — without even lighting up! — than a thousand Dutch Masters commercials ever could), and then, inevitably, of Freud.
The saving grace of Cigar Bar is that the smoking goes on in a large open courtyard. Most of the smoke presumably rises and is carried off by the wind to join the rest of the city’s smog in the Central Valley, with only traces remaining to lend an unhealthy blue-gray haze to the window glass, like a cataract forming on an eye. Around the courtyard, in a kind of U-shaped arcade, are dimly lit, cozy dining areas with a definite Spanish flavor — low arches, adobe walls. (No smoking in these enclosed spaces.) Tobacco smoke might not pair well with any food, but Iberian design does put one in mind of Spanish-style food, and this Cigar Bar has, after a fashion.
It might be more accurate to describe the menu as offering foods of the Spanish-speaking world, given that the list of munchables includes tortilla chips ($7) with a first-rate, chunky guacamole and a pico de gallo with well-honed edges. I call that Mexican. Chorizo, on the other hand, is both Spanish and Mexican, but, as with its fellow shape-shifter, the tortilla, your expectation as to what’s coming will depend on which side of the Atlantic you’re on. Cigar’s bruschetta ($10) featured Spanish chorizo (a cured sausage with a dense, jerky-like meatiness), cut into fine dice and scattered amid basil leaves, chunks of Roma tomato, dabs of goat cheese, and some baby greens, with EVOO and fleur de sel as binders.
Other preparations seemed to lack any Spanish or Mexican influence at all — but that didn’t mean they weren’t splendid. The crispy polenta batons ($8.50), in particular, were sensational; they looked like small bricks dotted with bits of kalamata olive and cherry pepper and were topped with crumblings of bleu cheese and a few peperoncini. If you sometimes find polenta bland, here is your remedy.
The paradox of fish tacos is that they are at their most appealing and least healthy when the fish is batter-fried. If you grill your fish, as Cigar does ($9.50) — it’s tilapia, by the way, a reliable foot soldier in these kinds of operations — you do well to compensate in other areas for the lack of seducing crunch. Cigar’s answer was a generous shower of mango and jicama dice, along with dollops of chilpotle sour cream, whose smooth smokiness mingled with the fruit’s sweetness — while reminding us that we were in a smoky cigar bar.
You would expect tables-full of cigar-chomping — or, in a few cases, cigarillo-chomping — dudes to be interested in baby back ribs, at least when they’re not playing poker (do they ever play strip poker?), and the kitchen obliged. A half-slab ($11) was lightly slathered with a sauce the menu card unsurprisingly described as “smoky”; we found it just spicy enough to give a nice tingle on the tongue. The accompanying coleslaw was on the sweet side but still fresh and tangy. Would Freud have enjoyed this coleslaw, or would his attention have been riveted elsewhere?
CIGAR BAR AND GRILL
Dinner: Mon.–-Fri., 4 p.m.–2 a.m.; Sat., 6 p.m.–2 a.m.
850 Montgomery, SF
Noise less of an issue than smoke