Posted: Oct 9, 2007 2:11pm ETI had one of those cigar moments that we all dream about on Saturday night. My friend had cooked a great meal, we were working our way through a couple of bottles of fine American wines, and the conversation swirled non-stop around the table. The dessert was served, and it was time for one of those fine, old English moments. The women in the group retired to the patio (it was still in the mid-70s at 10 o’clock), and the men stayed at the dinner table.
The humidor was passed, and my friend pointed to a cellophane-wrapped smoke, and said something along the lines of, “I think that one is really old.” The first one I chose was plugged, so he graciously let me light up a second. I began looking at the box, which he brought to me after I exclaimed how good the cigar was. The cigars were Ramon Allones No. 1s. The box was green, and the band was the modern version, so with those two clues, I was able (upon returning to the office) to date the cigar to no earlier than 1972. That date jibes more or less with the smoking habits of my friend’s father, who laid down quite a store of Cubans during the 1970s and 1980s. The cigar was in perfect condition, and in fact, having been in cello, it had not acquired that heavy overlay of cedar notes that many cigars stored in humidors get. I also was careful to note the history of that size, because there were some Ramon Allones sizes that were machine-made during that period; this was a handmade creation.
The cigar had a perfect balance, with a light toasty note, and some light nuttiness on the palate. As it burned down, it began to take on some depth and strength that hadn’t been there at the outset. The No. 1 is like the Montecristo No. 1, so it presents as a classic Lonsdale, six to six and half inches long with a 44 to 46 ring gauge. There wasn’t a hint of harshness in the smoke, and it burned and drew smoothly throughout the hour I smoked it.
My friend doesn’t have many more of those smokes, so I know I had a real treat. But I also was reminded about something very important: a well-made cigar with great tobacco that is properly cared for can last decades without losing its appeal. Yes, it does change in character, but sometimes I think a great old cigar remains closer to its original character than some great old bottles of wine. That’s another story too.
Posted: Oct 5, 2007 10:43am ETNew Yorkers are parochial. We know it. We don’t simply believe that our restaurants are as good as any in the world or in the United States, we know it. It is true that you can eat as well in the five boroughs as you can just about anywhere. But if you travel, and love good food, you also know that today you can be surprised by a great restaurant in almost any city, big or small, across the entire country. America’s food revolution is real.
Case in point. I was a small city of about 26,000 people last month in Ohio about 50 miles south of Cleveland in the middle of a rural farming area. It didn’t take long perusing the yellow pages to figure out that after the Longhorn Steakhouse, which I had eaten at in April, there wasn’t much choice beyond the all too familiar chain eateries that you can find in any shopping strip from California to Maine. But there in the restaurants section was a listing for the South Market Bistro, which the address showed was in the heart of downtown, a classic center of a quaint small American town.
The hostess apologized when I called at 7 p.m. asking for table for three, saying that she didn’t have anything until 8:15. I didn’t tell her in New York they would have laughed at me asking for a table at that hour, especially on a Friday night. Perfect, I said, because it would give us enough time to wash off the 10-hour drive from New York. We walked in at 8:10, and she said the table was being set, which we could see happening. We were seated almost immediately, and handed menus including a wine list. The wines were modest and the list short, but I ordered a half-bottle of a 2005 red Burgundy—yes, you all know by now that’s my favorite—and we began to size up the menu. Trust me. The choices could have been off one of New York’s hottest "in" bistros.
The salad greens and heirloom tomatoes came from local gardens and tasted as if they had started the day in the ground. My pasta with vegetables and a fresh pesto was brilliant. My daughter’s stuffed chicken breast with vegetables and a dusting of white truffle oil was to die for. And my wife’s pork dish was succulent and perfectly prepared. The peach blueberry cobbler that my wife and I shared for dessert held up against the warm chocolate cake that my daughter had.
Posted: Oct 1, 2007 10:28am ET“Take whatever you’d like to smoke.” The words were like magic. The invitation, from my friend who has an extraordinary collection of cigars, is not uncommon, but I never take it for granted. It’s a treat. And I know it.
Well, it turned out that as the invitation was spoken, I spied a box of one of my favorite cigars staring me right in the face: Romeo y Julieta Churchills. Their origin was from that small island nation 90 miles from Key West, so I knew immediately that’s what I wanted to smoke.
But I had more than a little trepidation. All the great benchmark Cuban cigars fell onto hard times when that country ramped up production during the global cigar boom of the mid to late 1990s. The RyJ Churchill was harder hit than most. Frankly, it’s been years since I had one that reminded of the great ones from the early 1990s. At their best, RyJ Churchills are packed with flavors of the earth and cocoa beans, and they are almost always perfectly smooth and well-balanced. I grew more trepidatious when I noticed that the box I was staring at had cigars packed in tubes, which also threw another negative element into the mix: many times, the tubo cigars just aren’t as pretty as regular boxes, because the cigar wrappers aren’t visible until you open the tube.
I lifted up some boxes. The first one was from 2001. I held my breath as I turned over the second one: 1991! I got excited. I knew these cigars were from the heyday of Cuban cigar production. I took one tube out and put the box back.
As I opened it, I did note that the wrapper wasn’t beautiful. The veins were a little thicker than I like, and the wrapper was quite dark. But the oils were intact, and the construction looked perfect.
You’ll read about this cigar in the next Connoisseur’s Corner in the Nov/Dec issue of Cigar Aficionado. I’ll give you a hint. I smoked it for nearly two hours and I wasn’t disappointed, even after lighting it a couple of times because it went out during our conversation, and during forays to check on some stuff online.
Posted: Sep 20, 2007 4:39pm ETIt was 11:30 p.m. last Saturday night. I was sitting on a low, stone wall that surrounds an ancient fireplace in the backyard of my house in Westchester County, New York. I had a half-smoked Tatuaje Taino in one hand, a glass of 1977 Taylor Fladgate Port in the other, and the sweet aromas of my fellow cigar smokers (including my wife puffing away on an OpusX PerfeXcion No. 5) mingling with the aromas from the fireplace.
Yes, the caption on that photo would be: The Good Life.
The occasion was another gathering of a small gourmet club that my wife and I joined about a year ago. Once every three or four months, the dinner takes place at the home of one of the six couples in the group. The host chooses the menu, or theme for the night, and each couple cooks a dish assigned by the host. We’ve done Thai, Indian, Southern, among others. My wife and I chose French, but with a twist; it would be a night of regional cuisine from the Burgundy region, one of my favorite areas of France.
The menu consisted of Gougeres, those yummy little puffs laced with Gruyere cheese; Beef Bourguignon; Chicken Breasts in a Tarragon-Pommery mustard sauce; a Galette Lyonnnais (potatoes and onions and “lots of butter”); a Salade Frisee Aux Lardons (bacon and croutons); a cheese course with two Burgundian cheeses, Langres and a triple cream Delice de Bourgogne; and a Tarte aux Pommes (apple tart) followed by a warm chocolate soufflé, the latter not exactly exclusively Burgundian, but that point, who cared. Every chef hit a home run.
I also took the occasion to dig into my cellar for the red wines, a 2002 Nuits St. Georges aux St. Julien and a 2003 Corton Renardes, and found two white wines from the same communes to match against them, a 2005 Corton Charlemagne, and a rare white Nuit St. Georges Les Perrieres form Henri Gouges. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be very difficult. The 2003 Corton Renardes was showing the best, but both of the whites were also spectacular. But, of course, you’d have to choose any of those over the absolutely perfect 1977 Taylor Port.
Posted: Sep 19, 2007 11:19am ETWhen it rains it pours. Or when you drive fast, you get used to it. This past weekend, I had another Audi, an S4, the little brother to the faster, more explosive RS4.
At first glance, there’s not much difference. There are 18-inch rims instead of 19 inch. And, the exhausts have a little different look too…four pipes instead of two. Even inside, there’s not much difference—each car has a six-speed manual transmission and the full array of Audi electronics. The seats seemed a little plusher in the S4, not quite as sport car hard as the RS4.
The differences lie under the hood. The RS 4 turns out over 420 horsepower, in a special FSI V8. The S4, a mere 340 horsepower, out of the essentially the same 4.2 liter V8. Believe it or not, the rumble of the exhaust is almost identical when you are sitting at a stop light waiting to put it into gear.
Now, this may be heresy to the true sports car lover, but in the end, I preferred the less powerful car, the S4. It is heresy because if you’re into cars, faster and more powerful has to be better. But for me, the perfect car has to have a balance, a harmony between the power and the handling and overall feel of the car. In the RS4, I couldn’t escape the feeling (it was real I later realized) that you always had to keep a tight tether on the car or it would be out of control before you knew it. It’s the kind of car that if you’re not careful when you punch the accelerator to pass a car in front, you better be turning the wheel or you’ll end up with your engine in the car’s trunk. The S4 was just easier to manage on a day to day basis, especially when it involves an urban commute; it’s still got plenty of power, and there’s no doubt that you can pretty much point it and make it do what you want it to do. But while it won’t always outrun those little Porches like the RS4, you can still stay close.
If I lived in Montana, or a Nevada, or someplace where there were more open roads than traffic-filled highways, I might opt for the RS4. But in the big city like New York, the S4 is more than enough car, and ultimately, just a little bit more comfortable because you’re not always fighting to hold it back. And, it’s a shade less than $18,000 cheaper, which can’t be ignored.
Posted: Sep 11, 2007 9:04am ETPorsche Killer II. That image kept jumping into the teenage boy part of my brain every time I punched the accelerator of the Audi RS4 I had for the weekend. I could see the faces in my rear-view mirror, some of them having stayed on the bumper to get a glimpse of exactly what was riding on those 19-inch tires, but by the time they got close enough, I wasn’t close anymore.
The facts: a 420-horsepower V8 in an Audi A4 body. A six-speed manual transmission with a tight, but very precise clutch and gates on the gearbox. Quattro, or for those who don’t know the Audi lingo, all-wheel drive. Combine all those things and a touch of the teenager in your blood, and you can push 0 to 60 in 4.6 seconds. But the Audi honchos also describe the engine as having an instantaneous response, which I can attest is true…0 to 60 is nothing in this baby. You can’t believe how quick 60 to 90 happens. In effect, it’s one of those mysterious cars where what you think, happens, when you hit the gas. The car was a beautiful deep Indigo blue (called Mugello Blue Pearl) and had all the interior amenities one would come to expect in a $66,000 car. That’s right. Nearly $30,000 less than a standard Porsche. Oh, and I hasten to mention that if you’re hankering after the new Audi R8, which car lovers have dubbed the real Porsche Killer I, the RS 4 has the same engine and it’s nearly $50,000 less.
One reason that I’ve always loved Audis is that at the pinnacle of their performance series, they are sports cars built for speed but they are also easy to ride in automobiles that you can fit your family into, or as I did this past weekend, the bulk purchases from 30 minutes of shopping at Costco.
Now, I don’t have an RS version in my garage normally, but thanks to the wonders of a “press fleet,” I was lucky enough to have this beast for the weekend. No speeding tickets because I didn’t exceed the speed limit, at least not when I could see a speed limit sign. It is a car that you should lust after.
Posted: Sep 4, 2007 2:34pm ETThe streets were jammed with strollers, enjoying the weather on an absolutely perfect Labor Day weekend in downtown Saratoga Springs, N.Y. My wife and I were out on Broadway, walking our Belgian Sheepdog, Chloe, and taking in the afternoon scene. We stopped into the Putnam Wine Market to see our friend William Roach (see July/August Cigar Aficionado, pg. 41) and then went to check out the expansion at the best bakery in North America, Mrs. London’s. As we ambled back toward the apartment, the breeze picked up and I got the unmistakable aroma of a cigar. I always scan the surroundings to see who’s smoking, but in this case, I couldn’t see anybody holding a stogie, but the scent of tobacco kept getting stronger.
On the corner of Broadway and Phila Street, just across from the stately Adelphi Hotel, I spied the Park Lane Tobacconist sign. And, inside the front door, there were people smoking, one with a pipe. I walked in. I could tell immediately that the shop had been built by people who understood the joys of a great cigar. The humidor was filled to the brim with outstanding smokes; all the most sought after brands were there. I picked up a couple of Tatuaje Tainos and went out to the counter. The dark wood shelves and the big overstuffed leather chairs gave the feel of a real gentleman’s club, but the windows looking on the Broadway gave the place a open feel too.
Park Lane was new this summer, which explains why I had never seen it. I go to Saratoga Springs frequently because my wife has family there. This summer was occupied with other things so we hadn’t visited in awhile. In the past, I’ve enjoyed the Saratoga Cigar and Pipe shop, which is an institution in the city, but it’s not within walking distance of downtown. Now, there’s a place to enjoy all the pleasures of one of America’s most quaint resort downtowns, and still have a cigar.
Check it out this fall. I’m sure you’ll agree.
Posted: Aug 31, 2007 11:04am ETHave you ever found yourself in a spot where you realize that it is the perfect location to have a cigar…and you didn’t have one with you? It happened to me last Saturday. Now, I didn’t have a cigar because it was a lunch at a restaurant in New York State, which means No Smoking, No Way. And, the forecast was for 100 degree temperatures, so I wasn’t eager to sweat it out outside just to smoke. And I wasn’t that far from home, so I knew if the urge hit the party, we could always retire to my house.
But as I entered the property, my first thought was, ‘What a perfect place to enjoy a cigar!”
The place is called Monteverde at Oldstone Manor, a newly renovated restaurant and spa with rooms that overlook the Hudson River just north of the town of Peekskill. The establishment had a long, and undistinguished, history up until about a year ago when an investor bought the property. He is now in the process of transforming it into a world-class destination with a top-notch restaurant. The lunch was great. The vistas were spectacular.
And, the next day, I called my friend who is the general manager there, Glen Vogt. Glen was formerly at Windows on the World, and, is one of the restaurant world’s great people. I asked him, “So what are you going to do about your cigar program? “He laughed, and said, “yeah, did you see the gazebo area, wouldn’t that be perfect?”
So we have a date. I’m going to bring some of my favorite cigars. He’ll supply the adult beverage, and we’ll sit on the lawn overlooking the Hudson talking about how best to capitalize on Monteverde’s unique allure to cigar smokers.
I’ll let you know what happens.
Have you ever had that reaction to a place? And, what did you do about it?
Posted: Aug 29, 2007 12:13pm ETOne of the great features of the cigar industry is how small it is. Yes, there are two very large publicly owned companies (Altadis and Swedish Match) that are big players, but the majority of the rest of the companies are family or individually owned. Some of the latter aren’t that small any more, but it is an industry where everyone who does business in it knows just about everybody else. Even the big companies are run by people who have spent their entire lives working with cigars, so it’s not like they are just anonymous suits; they have friendships that go back decades.
Now, the staff of Cigar Aficionado has the same kind of relationships. At RTDA, where myself and other editors of Cigar Aficionado were in attendance in August, it was impossible to walk down an aisle of booths without stopping to say hello to someone. The industry’s size also makes things possible like the annual Ashton dinners, which are held in a fine restaurant usually near the convention site.
Over the course of three nights, if you are an Ashton retailer, or a friend of the company, you get invited to partake in a wonderful evening of camaraderie, and in an expression of thanks to the retailers who support the brand all year long. There are usually more than 200 people at each of the three nights.
Robbie Levin is the owner of the Ashton brand, and of Holt’s in Philadelphia. He’s spent his entire life in the cigar business. And while it’s a huge expense to run these dinners every year (he won’t let on how much), he says it is truly is a way to say thanks to the retailers, who are the heart and soul of the cigar business. But he also showcases his salespeople; Chip Goldeen and Manny Ferrero are the evening’s MCs (Manny’s toasts are the stuff of legend), and there are always a lot of laughs. Manny also takes great pride in choosing the menus, and selecting the wines.
Posted: Aug 26, 2007 11:07am ETAugust 12th is always one of my favorite days of the year. It’s my daughter’s birthday. And, it is night for the annual Perseid meteor shower. Every year, I prepare her meal of choice: (fresh-made pesto on pasta, caprese salad with fresh mozzarella, and sweet corn from a farm stand.) And, after the birthday cake (this year, a Triple Mousse Majesty – all chocolate -- from the Black Dog Bakery in Martha’s Vineyard), we stay awake until the shower starts to pick up steam at about 1 a.m. Since it was her 18th this year, she invited some of her girlfriends to join her on the Vineyard, and we had a real party on a screened-in porch decorated with balloons and lanterns and a full spread on the tables. It was one of the last hurrahs before they all disappeared into their post-high school lives in college or gap years doing interesting things.
The girls headed to a nearby beach to view the celestial show, and my wife and I set up on the second floor veranda of our rental house, which has a huge sky panorama looking north and west. By the time all the festivities were over, and the kitchen cleaned up, it was 11 o’clock.
Let me just say in the all the years that I’ve been sky-watching, this August 12th was about the most perfect night I have ever experienced. The sky was dark except for the stars because of a new moon, and a cold front had moved through overnight Saturday which completely cleared the air. Even with the Northeast megalopolis sitting just to our West, the Milky Way was brilliant and the smallest orbiting satellite was visible sliding across the sky.
I haven’t always had a cigar on shooting star night, but this year, I yearned for a great smoke. I rummaged through my travel humidor, knowing what I was looking for—A Don Carlos Lancero. I lit it up, and poured myself another glass of a 2005 red Burgundy, and laid my head back on the lounger to gaze at the stars. My wife sipped on her own glass of wine, laying back on the deck on a single Aerobed. Given the cool but blessedly light ocean breezes off of the Vineyard Sound, we were bundled up against the midnight chill. The wind was light enough that the aroma of my cigar lingered on the deck.