A Smokin' Sanctuary

Good food, fine wine, and a comfy place to smoke

They are the unclean, the defiled. Outcasts. Outlaws. Social pariahs, shunned by the righteous for their apostasy.

They're smokers, the only group it's still PC to hate.

But even these bottom-dwellers, the dregs of the dregs, smokers of the Duffel Bags of Death known as cigars, deserve a place to call their own, free of the slings and arrows and sanctimonious piddling of their presumed superiors.

Merchants NY Cigar Bar is such a place.

It sits in the behemoth Dolphin Mall, its furtive entrance between Texas de Brazil and parent Southwest NY Restaurant. Inside, it's tiny; it really is just a bar — a few plush leather sofas and comfy barrel chairs, small cocktail tables, a short bar with maybe a dozen stools. Walls are a restful shade of forest green, with lots of dark wood paneling and wainscoting, etched mirrors, and a recessed ceiling dangling ornate, Victorian-style light fixtures. Smooth, syncopated Latin jazz wafts through the room, alternating with occasional pop tunes and even Old Blue Eyes crooning, aptly enough, about doing things his way. The mall madness that afflicts the surrounding area seems from another planet.

Merchants also serves food (a handful of appetizers) plus beer and wine and port and — coming soon — real booze, making it an ideal place to suck down an icy martini or snifter of fine, aged brandy. And, of course, it also serves cigars, not a huge selection but a decent one, covering all the legally smokable bases. And though soothing music wafts through the room, cigar smoke doesn't, because an industrial-strength ventilation system whisks the offending clouds away almost as soon as they appear, so you can indulge your filthy habit without getting the olfactory mark of Cain painted on your clothing.

Merchants' food comes from Southwest's kitchen, which is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that, unlike some local wine bars, there is a real kitchen with real cooks who actually prepare food rather than assemble it from containers of unknown providence. A curse in that, with only a few weeks of practice at this point, the timing between kitchen and cigar bar is still off, which means you can find yourself twiddling all ten of your digits while waiting for your order to arrive.

If this happens, as it did during our visit, the unfailingly sweet and solicitous staff will ply you with free wine and apologies until you feel like a heel for showing any impatience. This alone is worth many hosannas, especially in our "I'm too important to serve the likes of you" restaurant culture.

So order a glass of the surprisingly well-balanced Kenwood Pinot Noir or crisp, apple-y Chalone Chardonnay and pick at Merchants' upscale snacks. Buffalo chicken bites are haute junque food, lots of thumbnail-size nuggets doused with spicy, Tabasco-like sauce presented in a porcelain "boat" with very cheesy blue cheese sauce. Sliders come in threes, a trio of miniburgers with pepper-jack cheese and aiolilike sauce.

Ceviche of snapper and shrimp could use a flavor spike, but plain as it was — only red onion strings and green pepper slivers — there was no denying the freshness of the seafood and delicacy of the lime juice. Jumbo shrimp are truly huge and damn tasty, poached and hung on the side of a martini glass filled with excellent cocktail sauce that delivers a snappy horseradish bite. A quartet of chocolate truffles, made in-house, are delightful, with creamy-dreamy fillings oozing out of rich, unctuous chocolate balls.

Finish with a glass of good port and a cigar, and remember: When cigars are outlawed, only outlaws will have Merchants NY Cigar Bar.

 
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