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Gordon Mott

Havana Dining

Posted: Dec 14, 2010 12:00am ET

Let’s make one thing clear from the beginning—you shouldn’t go to Havana for the food. Decades of isolation and ongoing issues with agricultural production make it extremely difficult for restaurants to provide anything close to what we would call haute cuisine. At its worst, the culinary reality can result in really abysmal offerings. At their best, however, Havana’s restaurants can turn out simple, good-tasting fare, especially if it is seafood or poultry-based, and, every now and then, you end up with a dish in front of you that surprises, either because it is so innovative and creative, or just because you could find it in any restaurant in New York, or Miami. Wine lists are fairly limited, but a few places have been building their cellars to the point that you can easily find something good to drink, especially if you prefer Spanish or South American wines. And, for the most part, service is professional and friendly, even if you are a Red Sox fan like me; if you’re a Yankees fan, like Dave, you are treated like a king.

What has changed—again—in Havana is the advent of the paladars, the private restaurants created by the government years ago, then banned, then allowed to reopen again, and now finally being encouraged to stay in business. The paladar landscape is changing rapidly and new openings are occurring every month. Since the only real guide is the city’s word of mouth grapevine, don’t reject a recommendation if no one else has heard of it. You may just find a gem.

Be sure to get precise directions from a concierge, and verify that your taxi driver knows the place. There are no big signs for most of these restaurants, and you could easily drive past some of them situated in residential neighborhoods half a dozen times before finding them. And bring cash—for the most part, these are not establishments that take credit cards. 

We ate at five different restaurants, going to El Aljibe, a fine roast chicken restaurant, twice because of its ease and relative low cost. El Aljibe is kind of like your favorite country diner; you know the food is not going to blow you away, but it is always well-prepared, there won’t be any unpleasant surprises and the welcome is always warm. Stick to the roast chicken. Order all the sides, including the chicken gravy for the rice. Get ready to be offered seconds and thirds, in other words, as much as you can eat. The restaurant also has what everyone calls the best wine cellar in Havana; it is big and temperature controlled, and it goes beyond the usual Spanish and South American fare, with a smattering of French labels; for instance, a 2006 Joseph Drouhin Gevrey Chambertin for $140 Cuban pesos. We went back twice because it is a quick, no-fuss meal, and at $12 Cuban pesos per person, before wine, the price can’t be beat. Both nights we selected Spanish albarinos, one my favorite white wines.

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A Rainy Night in Havana

Posted: Dec 12, 2010 12:00am ET

The name had barely slipped off the comedian’s lips when the crowd erupted in applause and shouts of admiration echoed in the small bar. A woman dressed in black, with shiny black hair down to her shoulders and eyes as big as round brown saucers shuffled toward the stage with the microphone already in her hand. The guitar player struck up the distinctive chords of Cuban music, in a syncopated rhythm to the percussionist’s seductive, body-moving beat. The singer launched into her first song, unfamiliar to a foreigner, but clearly memorized by most of the crowd. Ela Calvo’s midnight set at the Gato Tuerto had begun.

My last night had begun no less auspiciously. I couldn’t really lead this blog with the scene, because Dave and I have talked about it repeatedly all week long: waves crashing over the seawall on the Malecon and driving huge geysers of water up through the drains in the middle of the road, a cool northeast wind bringing out the local versions of ski parkas (I even saw many folks with woolen caps pulled down over their heads) and low threatening clouds. The rains finally came, too; there had been intermittent showers all day long, torpedoing our afternoon plans for a daylight walking tour of Habana Vieja, the stunningly renovated Spanish colonial sector of the city. After a quiet afternoon of writing and taking stock of our week’s reporting, we headed out amid the drizzles and low-hanging clouds for an 8:30 date at a new paladar called El Gijones, with the accent on the last e. Every one who heard we were heading there agreed; it’s one of the best restaurants in Havana today.

It takes a while getting used to driving in Havana at night; the streetlights are dim at best and often just absent. You turn onto dark, narrow streets that are either rutted or littered with potholes or what remains of the surface powdered into rubble, leaving only an uneven dirt surface. People hang out in the dark in front of buildings, the soft yellow incandescent light spilling out from inside to cast faint shadows on the curbs. I didn’t really know where we were headed in a still unfamiliar city, but the maze of streets in the Centro and Habana Vieja, the latter mostly closed to vehicle traffic, was beginning to fall into some kind of rational layout in my head. The cab pulled up in front of a building with stone arches forming a colonnade and the familiar patchy stucco exterior with entire sections simply fallen away and never repaired. A young lady waited by the front door, behind her a huge two-story courtyard where young girls in leotards were getting flamenco lessons. She asked if we had a reservation. A Mojito order later, we were happily ensconced on a third floor terrace overlooking the dark tops of buildings in old Havana. The wind whipped loudly outside, more than once driving a few drops onto the terrace, but for the most part, it stayed dry and warm enough.

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First Leaf

Posted: Dec 9, 2010 12:00am ET

The first tobacco leaf of the 2010-2011 Cuban tobacco harvest was picked today, and tonight it is hanging in a curing barn. It wasn’t just any leaf.

The first “libra de pie,” the bottom priming of the tobacco plant, came from the Robaina plantation in San Luis, the finca Cuchillas de la Barbacoa. In the wake of the death of the plantation’s patriarch Alejandro Robaina last spring, his grandson, Hirochi, is now in charge of production. Dave Savona and I visited the plantation today, mostly to give our condolences to the family, but the timing couldn’t have been better. We saw the first leaves hanging inside the barn, and we saw the field from where they had been harvested.

“I have a favor to ask,” Hirochi said to us. “Please let the world know the Robaina tradition continues.”

The Robaina name is renowned, both around the world and in Cuba, because of the legacy created by the patriarch, Alejandro. His name become synonymous in post-revolutionary Cuba with the finest wrapper leaves used on the most prestigious brands. But like any family business, when the next generation takes over, it would be easy to assume things were going to change... for the worse. It only takes a few minutes around Hirochi to feel his passion, to feel his determination to build upon the legacy of his grandfather, and to continue to the tradition of the family which began growing tobacco 165 years ago.

One example is how the Robaina plantation became the site of the first leaf picked for this harvest. “We planted on October 20, the first plantation in the Pinar del Río to put tobacco in the ground,” he said. But we asked whether it was risky to put tobacco in the ground while the hurricane season was still in full force.

Hirochi explained that on September 21 the weather had changed, and winds shifted to the north, bringing the first cool nights after the long hot summer. “My grandfather had always said that when the north winds begin, there will be no more hurricanes in Cuba.” So, he decided to take the risk and began his seed beds, and when they were ready, he put the plants in the ground—before any other grower in the region.

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My Stunning Mystery Cigar

Posted: Dec 7, 2010 12:00am ET

I smoked one of the best cigars of my life last night. I don’t know its name; actually, it doesn’t have one. You can’t buy it. I can’t buy it. It is a private blend made in quantities that wouldn’t amount to more than two or three boxes a year. But like a parting kiss from the most beautiful woman in the world, or the last bottle of your favorite wine in your cellar, or the greatest meal you ever ate at a restaurant, the memory of the experience will linger long after you’ve given up hope of ever having it again.

When I was handed the cigar, I knew immediately it was something special. The heft of the canonazo size, as it is called in the factories here—a corona gorda girth with a bit more length—felt perfect in my hand. The darkish wrapper, leaning toward what the Cubans define as maduro, was sleek to the touch, the oils giving not only a visible sheen but a slight oiliness in my hand.

I clipped it carefully, and the cigar resisted the cut just a little bit, like it wasn’t ready to be smoked. Too little tobacco and a cigar will often squeeze under the cut; too much, the cut almost snaps the end off. But a perfect fill resists the cutter’s blade just a little bit. I lit the cigar, and it took the burn easily and quickly, getting that full red glow around the tip almost without effort.

My first impression wasn’t the flavor, but the completeness and complexity of the smoke. It was mouth-filling, triggering a salivary festival, without a touch of dryness. The attack on my tongue was smooth and rich, and the finish lingered all the way to back of my mouth. I’ve seen cigarmakers gesture with their hand, a kind of full moon circle, describing how a cigar can stimulate every part of the mouth. This cigar had that quality.

The flavors had a smooth earthiness, with just that touch of sweetness, one that I describe often as cocoa bean. It wasn’t overly powerful or strong; it didn’t have that mind-bending quality of many cigars today, with too much nicotine in the leaves. As the cigar burned past the halfway, the intensity of the flavors built and then turned a bit more toward earth and spice, but again, without a touch of dryness.

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First Night in Havana

Posted: Dec 6, 2010 12:00am ET

After a long delay in Miami, and then yet another long delay in Havana immigration, Dave Savona and I finally made it to the Hotel Melia Cohiba, our base for the next five days. It was almost nine o’clock. My day had started at 4:30 a.m. But hey, man has to eat. And, what’s a first night in Havana without a dinner at El Aljibe. The locals say it isn’t what it used to be, but Dave and I shrugged our shoulders and said, let’s go.

It’s a 10 minute cab ride from the hotel out to El Aljibe, a large open air restaurant. While it’s a complete menu, there’s really only one thing to order—the Pollo Asado, and it comes with rice, black beans, a cucumber and tomato salad and French fries and deep fried plantains. The tab? About $15. We ordered a bottle of Spanish Albarino, a delicious, tart white wine. When I asked for the wine list, they simply said, follow our sommelier and off we went to what everyone says is the finest cellar in all of Cuba—it’s temperature controlled. He said they had bottles from 15 to 1400 in the local CUCs, the local convertible peso. It’s about .8 to the dollar.

The chicken arrived. The rice and beans were perfect. The French fries crisp. The wine, a perfect accompaniment to the food. We ate our fill, and managed to avoid all the other temptations, including dessert. It was back to the hotel and, of course, what’s the first day in Havana without a cigar and a glass of rum? We headed up to the El Relicario cigar bar in the hotel. We both ordered a Havana Club 7-year-old, one of my favorite rums in the world. And we picked out two Punch Punch from the humidor—just the right size for a pre-dreamland smoke. It took about 12 seconds and we looked at each other, smiled and said, “What could be better than this?”

So, our first four hours in Havana were almost over. We were both about ready to drop. But there’s no doubt about it. We are in Havana. Can’t wait for tomorrow.

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Waiting for Havana

Posted: Dec 5, 2010 12:00am ET

The check-in line at the Miami International Airport was already stretching out at 11 A.M. for a 3 P.M. flight. Everyone seemed to have two or three pushcarts filled with luggage, boxes of stereo equipment and at least one bag wrapped in fluorescent green plastic wrap, a gaudy attempt at making it a little more difficult for someone to rifle through the contents.

Dave Savona and I had taken an early flight out of New York to ensure we had plenty of time to make our flight, and God forbid, deal with any questions about why two gringos like us were headed to Havana. No need to worry; by the time check-in started at 11:30, the first thing the woman behind the counter said was, ‘You know we have a two-hour delay."

I first went to Cuba in 1995, an exciting trip for Cigar Aficionado with Marvin R. Shanken that covered all the bases: the top cigar shops, the best factories in Havana and a trip to Pinar del Rio. But Cuba had been part of my professional life since the late 1970s, when I was a foreign correspondent covering the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua and then the guerrilla civil war in El Salvador. Cuba was always the elephant in the room, the Latin American nexus of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, and the suspicions about its support, at least psychologically if not materially, for the revolutionary movements in Central America.

We paid attention to the pronouncements coming out of Havana with every bit as much attention as we did the news from the governments in Central America and Washington. Even then, we made more out of the Cohibas in the hands of Sandinista commandants than they probably warranted, but nonetheless, it was a sign of the unadorned admiration for all things Cuban in the post- Anastasio Somoza era in Nicaragua.

Gordon Mott waiting for a plane to Cuba.
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Our Cigar Community

Posted: Nov 15, 2010 12:00am ET

The Las Vegas Big Smoke this past weekend reminded me of one of the enduring realities of being a cigar smoker. There is a huge community of us. And, it seems that everyone experiences our hobby, or passion—however you prefer to describe it—in much the same way. We have a lot like-minded folks out there who revel in the camaraderie that comes with a fine hand-rolled cigar.

I told the audience that in my personal world, I have cigar smokers around me all the time. My physician. My dentist. Even my car dealer. They are all cigar smokers who understand and share in some of the same pleasures that I have. It’s not that I’m out looking for cigar smokers among the people that I have to see for various reasons all the time. They are just there. And, I would bet that if you asked a few questions as you go about your daily business, you’d find some cigar smokers too. I remember a few years ago, I walked into a local hardware store with a jacket sporting a cigar brand logo. I had been in the store before, but there are other hardware stores around my community too. The man behind the counter spoke up and said,  “I like that cigar a lot, but I usually smoke [another brand.]” Well, we talked cigars for a few minutes, and he helped find the items I needed that day. Now, when I have a choice of hardware stores, I always go back there.

If you ever wonder whether cigar smokers are all the same, all you need to do is come to a Big Smoke (and you can read all about what happened this weekend right here on this site, starting tomorrow.) You’ll find men and women from all walks of life, and from all over the country walking around sampling the cigars, the fine spirits that are being poured and the great food offered up by the local restaurants. It’s a true meeting place where all the pretensions of whatever one does outside the doors are stripped away, and people bond around their love of a good cigar. Some come dressed in costumes. Some are wearing suits. Some are in jeans and sneakers. But everyone is happy and smiling, and just having a good time.

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Starry, Starry Night

Posted: Sep 9, 2010 12:00am ET

The Big Dipper tilted across the western sky. A dazzling combo of Jupiter and Uranus had risen high in the east. And, about 10 men, nine Danes and an American (yours truly), were lighting up cigars after a night of revelry celebrating one of the Danes’ 25th wedding anniversary. The outdoor air at 1 a.m. was crisp, but apparently warm by early September standards in Denmark because some of the men were in shirtsleeves; the American was shivering, still in his sports coat and long-sleeved shirt.

The evening had been deeply steeped in tradition, with formal speeches by the spouses, their son, and a series of songs, poems and heartfelt toasts—some a little ribald—by friends from both sides of the couple; by heritage, the husband’s friends were all Danish, and the wife’s friends, mostly American. About 35 people sat at the table, mostly grouped by language facility, but with a lot of cross-cultural exchange happening all night long. Also by tradition, when the husband left the room to use the bathroom, all the men jumped up and circled around to the head table to kiss the wife; and vice-versa; when she left the room shortly thereafter, all the women headed for a quick smooch with the husband.

Of course, at the end of each toast, there was a loud Skål (pronounced skoal) shouted around the room, and an instruction to repeat a uniquely Danish chant, best described as a Nordic version of hooray, but pronounced more like “oooo, wahhhhh," and sounded out with either a short or long phrase on each syllable: so three shorts and a long was … well you get the idea. And, then, glasses were lifted and drinks were taken. The festivities started at around 6 p.m., and were still going at midnight. Thank goodness it was mostly wine and beer, and not Aquavit.

But shortly after the last course was served, and the toasts ended, the men looked eagerly to their cigar purveyor, moi. I had brought a sampler box of Dominican and Nicaraguan cigars for the evening, figuring that was easier, especially since not all were serious cigar smokers. We retired to the terrace behind a big building, formerly a barn on the manor house property where we were staying. I played the role of a classic cigar retailer, asking people what kind of things they liked to eat or drink, trying to figure out if they would like a stronger or milder smoke. The Man of the Night didn’t have a choice: I had a big Davidoff Millennium Perfecto for him, figuring after 25 years, he deserved a big smoke. 

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Cigar Inventory

Posted: Aug 23, 2010 12:00am ET

I’m getting ready to re-stock my personal cigar inventory. I’ve been fortunate in that most of the cigars I smoke are at work, and supplied as part of our tasting reports. But you’ve all seen my humidor at home. It’s got a mix of cigars from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Cuba. There’s also a drawer full of “assorted” cigars, most of which are not my favorite smokes, but my friends appreciate getting them on the golf course, or as part of one of our after-dinner rituals at my house.

But thanks in part to a steady, if not rapid, consumption of my personal stock, and a tragic beetle infestation that took about 100 cigars to an early grave, I’m in the acquisition mode, especially for Cubans. Frankly, I haven’t purchased Cubans in a number of years because of my concerns about the construction quality, and even the tobacco quality, of their cigars. That period of questionable quality seems to be in the past.

So, I can tell you that I will be looking for larger cigars, and maybe a box or two of lanceros, one of my favorite sizes. In the double corona category, we’ve had some great Lusitanias recently, and since that’s always one of my favorites, so I’ll be searching for them. And, I’m always partial to Romeo y Julieta Churchills; they’ll be on my shopping list too. Believe it or not, one of my current favorite lanceros is the Vegueros, which are not always available, but they are a great value and usually pretty full-flavored. I’ll let you know as my stock gets re-built.

One thing I will do is buy enough so the bulk of the boxes can age for at least a year, and maybe longer. I keep discovering cigars in my humidor that are beyond five years old, and I’m almost always amazed at how smooth they are even if they were blockbusters when I first got them.

Do any one of you stock your humidors with the idea of keeping an aged inventory on hand? Are you laying down things that aren’t necessarily your every day smoke? Are you buying new brands on a regular basis just to try them out? How many cigars do you keep?

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Chloe R.I.P.

Posted: Jul 9, 2010 9:55am ET

Our faithful companion, Chloe, a.k.a. Clos Vougeot, left this world about three weeks ago. I haven’t been able to sit down to write this farewell until this week. The emotions were just too raw and too painful, but with a little passage of time, the pain is a little less acute. I’m slowly coming around to a place where I can remember her presence with a deep fondness without tears coming to my eyes. And, I can appreciate that the loneliness my wife and I feel without her around is testimony to how much we loved her and how much a part of our lives she was every day.

Longtime readers of Cigar Aficionado will remember her, a beautiful, jet-black Belgian Sheepdog. She and I were photographed along with Marvin Shanken’s Wheaten Terrier Christina for the editor’s page in an issue that launched a re-design of Cigar Aficionado magazine in June 2000. She was just two and a half years old at the time and if it looked like I had a virtual hammerlock on her in the photos, I did; it was hard to keep her in one place for any length of time. That remained true for nearly her entire life.

Then, two months ago, she woke up one morning and was unable to get to her feet. I helped her up, and within a couple of days that had turned into me carrying her downstairs every morning and back up every night. The world of advanced veterinary science did everything it knew how to do, at each turn of the diagnostic wheel, eliminating possible causes and coming up with potential treatments. As any dog owner knows, it’s tough; they can’t talk to you to tell what hurts or what’s wrong. Our vet, Dr. Brian Green, was fantastic, holding out hope and optimism at every step, but always with a cautionary note that we might be facing a tough decision. The diagnosis finally came—polymyositis, an autoimmune syndrome that, in Chloe’s case, was attacking her muscles.  Even then there were treatments that worked for most dogs. Unfortunately, for her, nothing did.

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