Anthony's Cigar Bar & Grille
Go: 7641 Voice of America Center Drive, West Chester
Hours: 11-2 a.m. on Monday-Saturday, noon-2 a.m. Sunday. Limited menu served after 10 p.m.
Prices: Moderate to expensive
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Chicken, seafood, pasta, salads
Accessibility: Yes (short step up to non-smoking section)
Anthony's Cigar Bar & Grille has a split personality. With its dark green walls, oak accents and personalized humidors, it feels like a clubby man's restaurant -- a place where guys can smoke cigars, watch the game, grab a bite and drink some good red wine away from wives and girlfriends. If this were 1906 instead of 2006, you might even expect them to have a "no dames" policy.
But it is 2006, so the fairer sex is welcome. Why, Anthony's even offers several Chardonnays by the glass! Not surprisingly, entrées include big cuts of flame-grilled red meat, but also offered are interesting, ambitious recipes, with ingredients like white truffle oil, baby bok choy, cherry- cola and black truffle honey. (Executive chef Mary Swortwood -- formerly chef/owner of Brown Dog Café -- designed the inventive menu but recently moved on.
Still, there's no denying that Mars is the center of gravity here, not Venus. On the night of our recent visit, male patrons outnumbered female by a ratio of about 15 to 1.
We sat in a raised non-smoking section, separated from the flat-screen TVs and partially protected from billowing clouds of smoke by etched-glass panels. Our first appetizer was excellent: Asparagus wrapped in pancetta (Italian bacon) and served with a kiss of lemon juice and white truffle oil ($11.95).
Unfortunately, our Spiedini ($12.95) -- which usually refers to grilled meat or fish skewers -- was less successful. It was basically a tomato-and-mozzarella salad served on skewers. The house-made mozzarella was delicious, but the "heirloom" tomatoes were slightly mealy, flavorless and ice cold. We sent it back. The manager apologized, explaining that it's hard to find good tomatoes in October. (True, so why offer the dish if proper ingredients aren't available?)
He smoothed things over by generously providing a complimentary plate of crispy, cornmeal-crusted calamari with a creamy, delicious chili aioli (normally $9.95).
Anthony's wine list offers nearly 150 well-chosen, reasonably priced bottles ($18-$110; many under $40) with about 50 by the glass. While our friendly server wasn't familiar with many of the selections, the dishes were clearly designed to pair well with wine.
For example, our slightly overcooked Grilled Salmon ($15.95) was topped with a tangy, fruity cherry-cola barbecue sauce that would highlight the complex cherry-cola essence of a St. Gregory Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. Likewise, our medium-rare Beef Tenderloin ($28.95), while so peppery that it overwhelmed its wild mushroom ragu topping, paired nicely with a bold Terra dei Re Aglianico del Vulture ($38/bottle) from south-central Italy's mountainous Basilicata region. This versatile wine also showed well with a moist and tender Grilled Flank Steak Panini ($9.95).
Note to the guys watching the game: A spicy Aglianico's characteristic aromas of tar and tobacco even make it an excellent pairing with a cigar!
Now, this is not the place for those looking to shed a few pounds or lower their cholesterol. The food strives to show complexity, but portion sizes are substantial. We didn't have much room left for dessert. Still, we finished by dipping crumbly pistachio biscotti (I prefer them drier and crunchier) into a glass of unctuously sweet Vin Santo ($12/glass). This "holy wine" has honeyed, pineapple aromas and flavors that reminded us why it's traditionally shared by native Tuscans with their most-cherished friends.
And Anthony's is all about welcoming friends. It says so right on the menu in what can best be described as their mission statement: "We believe that once you walk through our doors, you are our friend." Especially if you're a friend who really likes to watch contact sports while puffing on a 56-ring Churchill. In fact, for such friends, they recently added the NFL Ticket and the boxing package to their cable line up.
At present, I feel that Anthony's split personality goes beyond the Mars/Venus thing. There's a real tension in the dual roles of cigar bar and fine restaurant: The smoke that hangs in the hazy room (and clung to us like a needy child after we left) obliterates some of the subtle and complex aromas of fine food and wine.
The menu is ambitious, but the kitchen isn't always up to the challenge. The service is friendly, but a bit overwhelmed when things go awry. The place looks great, yet no one thought to place salt- and pepper shakers on the tables. Hopefully they'll fine-tune their concept and their preparations; if they do, they're poised to move to the next level.
After our meal, the manager came over again and offered us free cigars. Not being smokers, we declined. But the offer was genuine, and I appreciated his eagerness to share his passion with us. Rest assured, if you share the twin passions for cigars and ambitious food, the staff at Anthony's will try its best to satisfy. ©