Posted: Jun 12, 2009 1:21pm ETI recently had a smoke with Tony Schumacher, a six-time champion drag racer. Tony, known as “The Sarge” for his Army sponsorship and military haircut, specializes in going very, very fast in a top fuel dragster. Fast as in 337.58 miles per hour.
Tony’s car, fed by gallons of nitromethane cut with a touch of methanol, goes from zero to 100 miles per hour in 0.8 seconds. “A Lamborghini will do that in nine seconds,” says Schumacher, a likeable guy with an intense style and a great story to tell. The car generates about 8,000 horsepower, and hits the driver with more G-forces than an astronaut experiences in a space shuttle launch.
Schumacher loves to go fast for work, but when he has downtime he takes is slow, namely with premium cigars. We puffed away in my office, me peppering him with questions about drag racing and him responding with inquiries about cigars. He’s partial to Graycliffs, and also enjoys San Cristobals and Nubs.
He also has a great sense of humor. He had me pull up the YouTube videos of his crashes—he’s had a couple of dramatic ones, including a particularly nasty one in Memphis in 2000. “It was ranked the worse crash in history,” said Schumacher, nonchalantly. The wing came off the back of his car, sending the speeding dragster in a violent right turn, through the barrier, and almost into an oak tree. I pointed to a chunk of metal spinning around and around. “Is that you?” I asked. “That’s me,” he said.
He broke his leg, dislocated eight fingers, chipped teeth and had “an incredible concussion,” but he was otherwise OK. The video ends with a close up of the wing that ripped off, nearly killing him. He saved it.
Posted: Jun 5, 2009 4:18pm ETA good friend of mine maintains that there are far too many steakhouses in Manhattan. I disagree. Bring ‘em on.
I’m an unabashed steakhouse fan. A steakhouse dinner—start with a selection of raw oysters, then a salad with bleu cheese dressing followed by a medium-rare steak washed down with rich, red wine—is my favorite meal. And you can hold the cheesecake for dessert—give me a cigar instead.
I have several favorites here in New York City, and unlike my friend I revel in experiencing new expressions when I try a new steakhouse. Here are a few of the newer ones I find interesting, plus a selection of old favorites.
Primehouse New York, 381 Park Avenue South
There used to be a very ordinary sports-themed restaurant with dull food directly across the street from our offices. New owners took this space and transformed it into a steakhouse. Genius. The steakhouse is grand and stark, and the selling point is an aging room lined with Himalayan salt. I don’t know if the salt does anything at all, but I really enjoy one of the lunch dishes, which has a very reasonable pricetag. It’s a hanger steak, served churassco-style with chimmichuri sauce. (This is best enjoyed rare.) Outdoor tables are available on sunny days—if you ask nicely, they might even let you smoke a cigar.
Benjamin Steak House, 52 East 41st Street
This beautiful restaurant sits only a block from Grand Central Terminal and excels in steak for a group—large porterhouses sliced off the bone, served on a blazing hot platter. On a recent visit, the matire’d presented slices of the sirloin cut, and brushed each against the hot platter with a sensational sizzle to cook it more, if needed. For the truly hungry, the restaurant also serves a full breakfast. Yes, you can have a sirloin steak at 7 a.m. The restaurant is around the corner from the Barclay Rex smoke shop on 42nd Street.
Posted: Jun 1, 2009 11:25am ETOn Saturday afternoon I dropped by the Cigar Inn on Second Avenue in New York City to see Rocky Patel. He was there for the entire day, greeting cigar smokers and talking about his many lines of cigars.
Rocky never stops—he’s always somewhere on the road, whether its in a cigar factory in Central America or a cigar shop somewhere in the United States or abroad. The guy is tireless, and he seems to feed off the energy of the cigar smokers around him who enjoy his company. Everyone seems to love the guy.
And he’s making fine cigars. Remember his Rocky Patel Decade, which scored 95 points in Cigar Aficionado last year? That’s a number few cigars hit.
The cigar shop, home of the Cigar Aficionado lounge, was bustling, pretty impressive for such a sunny weekend afternoon. I was handed a dark cigar that Rocky makes special for the Cigar Inn, and I lit it up as I walked through the store, saying my hellos to the Fakih brothers, Billy, Gus and Bass, who own Cigar Inn. (Nice smoke—very spicy on the start, good flavor throughout.) People were all over the shop, smoking cigars, sampling drinks, and listening to live music played on an eight-string guitar. I liked their latest addition, a little walled off seating area outside the shop. It’s great for al fresco smoking now that the weather has turned gorgeous.
I spent some time chatting with a few of the people who were there to see Rocky, including a young couple from Washington, D.C. who came up just for the event. Nice people, really into their cigars. (A power puffing couple, if you will.)
Rocky and I caught up, and he told me he has some big projects on the horizon, such as a Patel Brothers cigar (featuring him and his brother, Nish) and a Rocky Patel 15th Anniversary cigar, both of which are coming out around July. 2010 is his company’s 15th year in the business. Seems like I was just writing about his 10th anniversary!
Posted: May 26, 2009 3:30pm ETWhat a great weekend. I swam, I fished, I barbecued and I had an extremely relaxing time. I think I spent all of ten minutes inside.
The highlight was Sunday. It began with the Memorial Day parade, where our little town puts on a big show. My wife, little boy and I walked into town just before the start of the parade, taking our spots in front of the local market. First came the antique cars, then the fire trucks (a big hit with my boy) and the veterans of World War II, followed by school marching bands and the local Little Leaguers. At the end, the thump of rotors brought everyone’s eyes to the sky as a pair of army helicopters did a fly by, which was stunning.
After the parade, we went back home, and I fired up the gas grill. We were hosting a cookout for a bunch of friends and their children. We were worried about the weather—the forecast called for scattered showers, and we really weren’t set up for entertaining inside. But we moved forward. I threw on some dogs, and checked the brisket and chicken I had smoked the night before. The brisket was looking perfect, black and smoky after nine hours in the Weber smoker (I used mostly hickory chunk, with a touch of mesquite). The chicken legs were ready for round two, a little oven finishing to make them fall-off-the-bone tender. My wife was putting the finishing touches on a feta cheese dip and some bean salad, and she had made a batch of homemade macadamia nut cookies the night before. (I like to blame these little disks of joy for my love handles.) The keg of Miller High Life was just reaching optimal temperature.
The guests started to arrive. The kids took to the toys in the yard—the sandbox and a bucket of soap bubbles in particular. I handed out cigars to my friends and we poured a few cold beers.
The rain stayed away, despite heavy showers hitting south and north of us. (Friends who live 20 minutes north told me that they had torrential downpours that very afternoon.) The only showers in my backyard that day came when one of the children (there were 13 in all, most between the ages of four and six!) discovered that the garden hose was on, and the water war was engaged. Every child became very, very wet—and they had a blast.
Posted: May 21, 2009 2:20pm ETDetails are key in the magazine business, and sometimes one word can hold you up for hours. I’m not talking about a frustrated writer hunched over a keyboard searching for the proper way to describe how a night was dark and stormy—I’m talking about facts, and getting them right. I found myself in such a situation earlier this week as we were making the final edits on the May 19 Cigar Insider.
We conducted a vertical brand tasting of the Arturo Fuente Don Carlos brand, one of my all-time favorite cigars. To fill out the brand summary, I found myself searching through the notebooks of my cigar country travels to flesh out the origins of the brand. I picked up a reporter’s notebook from June 2006, when I was researching my Fathers and Sons piece for Cigar Aficionado. That book held an interview I did with Carlos Fuente Sr. (the Don Carlos behind the Don Carlos brand) and his son, Carlos Fuente Jr. I found the fact I was looking for (did you know the first Don Carlos cigars were made in Nicaragua, more than 30 years ago?) but during the search I couldn’t help but reread the interview. When you research a story, you end up with tons of notes and plenty of quotes, most of which don’t make it to the final story due. I thought I’d share some of the tidbits with you.
June is a very hot month in the Dominican Republic, and that day was one of the hottest I’d ever experienced in my more than 10 years of taveling to the Santiago area. The Fuentes and I sat down at their incredible tobacco farm, Chateau de la Fuente. We sat around a rustic table, which was covered with Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars and had a simple thermos filled with hot, Cuban-style coffee. Each of us lit cigars, took our seats in the oppressive heat, and started talking about a little bit of everything.
I had known both men for years, especially Carlos Jr., but my meetings with his father were more rare. Carlos Sr. is a quiet man, a man not known for giving interviews or spending time with the press. He really opened up that day, and told me things I had never heard before about his entry into the cigar business—which was a far different world when he started making cigars than it is today.
Posted: May 6, 2009 4:39pm ETMemorial Day might be the traditional kickoff for outdoor activities for most people in America, but the Kentucky Derby is my personal clarion call to spring. That’s because our good friends Jay and Tammy throw a killer Kentucky Derby party, a wonderful affair with southern food, great music and cold, sweet Makers Mark mint juleps.
Saturday was a gorgeous afternoon, one made all the more precious by the ominous forecast (rain) and the cloudy, drizzly sky we all woke to. But by the three p.m. party start time, the sun had broken through the sky.
My wife and all the ladies came dressed in their Derby finest, with wide brimmed hats and festive dresses. Most of the men were in jackets; my buddy Russ even broke out the seersucker just for this occasion, and my pal Tim had a bright green tie that would have looked appropriate even in the infield at Churchill Downs. I went with a Cuban theme, breaking out a white guayabera (with a front pocket loaded with cigars) and a straw hat.
The cigars in my shirt were for me (long party—can’t run out of smokes) and I brought several boxes of goodies for the crowd. I had some A. Turrent 6 Generations and J. Fuegos for those looking for a medium-bodied smoke, and for those who wanted a more powerful cigar I had Rocky Patel Winter Blends and Alec Bradley Tempus Creos.
Jay and Tammy live on a cul-de-sac, and that quickly became party central—everyone wanted a taste of the sweet, spring breeze. By four, the cul-de-sac was full of guests dressed in their finest, many of them puffing on cigars and enjoying the great weather and the fine food, especially the biscuits with southern ham.
We had an auction for the Derby (which raised money for a great cause, the Tommy Foundation for pediatric cancer research), and piled into Jay’s basement bar to watch the most exciting race I have seen in a long time, with Mine That Bird (a 50-to-1 longshot!) darting from the inside and screaming to the finish line. Wish I could say I had a bet on him!
Posted: Apr 27, 2009 4:22pm ETI had dinner Thursday night at a great New York City restaurant. The food was lovely, but the best part was the cigar (two, in fact) that I puffed during cocktails, appetizers, entrée and dessert. The only bad part? The restaurant is only open a half-dozen times a year, and it only seats about 30 guests.
The “restaurant” was dubbed De La Rue, a combination of the Manhattan cigar shop De La Concha and the nearby restaurant Rue 57. The cigar shop closed for a short time in the early evening while the restaurant staff set up tables on the perimeter of the large shop, providing seating for about 34 guests. At 8 p.m., the doors opened, and the customers poured in for a dinner featuring Padrón cigars and a fine meal from Rue 57.
What a great concept.
“This is the De La Concha smoking oasis,” said Ron Melendi, who manages De La Concha, which is on the Avenue of the Americas between 56 and 57 Streets. “The customers love it. We partner with Rue 57, and they transform the store into a restaurant.”
The counter where one would normally buy a lighter was turned into a bar, manned by an exceptionally friendly sommelier from Rue who pointed me in the right direction, a 2005 southern Cote du Rhone that was drinking perfectly. Several members of the waitstaff walked the half block from Rue 57 to De La Concha, carrying plates of goodies: Kobe beef sliders, which were juicy and delicious; bruscetta with lots of olive oil, another winner; and a few pigs in blankets, which everyone seemed to enjoy. The main course featured a choice of three dishes, a roasted herbed chicken, potato encrusted salmon, or a hanger steak with frites. Naturally, I went with the steak.
I had never eaten at Rue 57 before (or, at “De La Rue”) and I was more than pleased with the food. It was a fine steak. What made it even better was the Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series Exclusivo I was smoking during dinner, which is one of my favorite cigars. Capping it off was the presence of Jorge Padrón, who spoke to the crowd about his cigars and even raffled off a few killer boxes, including a box of Padrón Serie 1926 No. 9 (our No. 1 cigar of 2007), a few boxes of Padrón 80 Years (last year’s No. 2 cigar) and a handful of Padrón Family Reserves, which aren’t sold.
Posted: Apr 22, 2009 4:58pm ETI like to think I’ve done my part in the fight against global warming—on a very localized level. I speak, of course, about the beer fridge.
A beer fridge typically evolves from an old refrigerator that someone in the house (usually the wife) has deemed inappropriate for use in the kitchen. Sure, it still works, as in it keeps things nice and cold, but no doubt it’s showing its age. Perhaps there are a few scratches on the doors, maybe the fan makes too much noise, or maybe the shelves in the door no longer function properly. When you whip open the door of your refrigerator to grab the milk, and bottles of ketchup and mustard fly across the room, it’s a sign that you need a new refrigerator. (I speak from experience.) And with it, a beer fridge is born.
I recently bought a new refrigerator, leaving me with three: the new one, for upstairs; the one with the cracked door shelves, which was otherwise perfectly functional; and the smallish one I had in my basement, keeping beers cold. My plan was to replace the old beer fridge with the larger one, leaving me one beer fridge too many.
My friend Rick was in the market for a beer fridge of his own. He was going to buy a new one. Instead, I gave him mine in exchange for an old sofa that was destined to clog another landfill. We hit upon a green solution.
Now much like the weathered refrigerator that no longer finds itself welcome in the civilized confines of a home, Rick’s sofa had been asked to leave his house by his significant other. But the flaws that ushered in its exile (some stains on the fabric here, a rip there) made it a perfect fit for the aesthetics of my subterranean cigar bunker, which yearned for more seating. The arrangement was perfect.
This weekend, right after driving from the Big Smoke at MGM Grand Foxwoods, I borrowed coworker Jack Bettridge’s pickup truck (yes, Bettridge drives a pickup truck—go figure) and drove it home to make the transfer. Rick pulled up to my home, a big smile on his face, and we got to work.
Posted: Apr 14, 2009 9:57am ETIf you're anywhere near the Tampa, Florida, area, you owe it to yourself to grab a few fine cigars and head to 215 N. Dale Mabry Highway this afternoon. At 4:30, the Cigar Rights of America, Tampa’s own J.C. Newman Cigar Co. and Naples’ Rocky Patel Premium Cigars are leading a rally of cigar smokers to protest SB 1840, a bill that would tax cigars by the ounce, adding about 50 cents, 75 cents or more to each cigar you buy. (Click here for the details)
And that tax would come on top of the recent 35-cent per cigar boost that went into effect on April 1 thanks to SCHIP.
Eric and Bobby Newman of J.C. Newman, the company behind Diamond Crown and Cuesta-Rey cigars, will be there along with Rocky Patel. National media outlets are expected to attend, so get out there, fire up a heater and show your support for your fellow smokers.
“With the nation in one of its deepest recessions in history,” wrote the CRA in a call to action email, “now is not the time to burden Florida's struggling cigar consumers, local community cigar retailers and family-owned manufacturers with such an onerous tax.”
Sounds right to me. Everything seems to cost more these days, and money is tight—this isn’t the time to hit people with a second ridiculous price increase.
I’d be there if I could, but I’m not near Tampa today. If you are, get to the rally point: the parking lot of a restaurant called Village Inn, at 215 N. Dale Mabry Highway. It starts at 4:30 p.m. Bring some great cigars, grab a few cigar smoking buddies and stand up for what you love before someone makes it too expensive for you to enjoy.
Posted: Apr 8, 2009 10:12am ETI’m always happy when Ernesto Perez-Carrillo comes to New York. I’ve known him since my early days at Cigar Aficionado, and El Credito Cigars in Miami was the first cigar factory I ever visited. On that first meeting, he welcomed me with a baggie of unbanded lonsdales that blew me away with power, spice and flavor.
Ernesto is no longer at El Credito, no longer making La Gloria Cubana cigars. His last day with the company was March 15. He left to make cigars with his son and daughter, and he originally intended to take some time before getting started.
Plans have changed—he’s getting started now.
One of the reasons for the accelerated timetable is the impatience of youth—Ernesto was accompanied the other day by his 27-year-old son, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo III. (The elder Ernesto is actually Perez-Carrillo Jr.) Ernesto III, formerly with the private-equity firm of Kohlberg, Kravis and Roberts, is used to working 100-hour-weeks, firing off emails on the Blackberry and wasn’t quite ready to sit around relaxing—he’s eager to get started in the cigar business. So is his sister, Lissette McPhillips, a lawyer who is now working with her father and brother.
“I wasn’t thinking of opening until March 2010. Now they’re pushing me,” Ernesto the elder said.
The two Ernestos told me their plan for making cigars over lunch. The idea is to make limited-edition cigars, utilizing special tobaccos that aren’t available in large enough quantities to draw the interest of the big companies, but something with character. One of those special releases will be on the market around Thanksgiving. Then, months later, the company’s main brand will make its debut, something that the Perez-Carrillos will make consistently, and at a lower price than the limited-edition releases. You can read more about this in the current Cigar Insider.