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David Savona

A Smoky New York City Restaurant

Posted: Apr 27, 2009 4:22pm ET
I 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.
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A Greener (And Frostier) World

Posted: Apr 22, 2009 4:58pm ET
I 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.
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Florida Smokers, Unite

Posted: Apr 14, 2009 9:57am ET
If 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.
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Smoking with Ernesto Perez-Carrillo

Posted: Apr 8, 2009 10:12am ET
I’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.
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A Day With the Ozgeners

Posted: Mar 19, 2009 3:21pm ET
Cano and Tim Ozgener from C.A.O. International came to town yesterday, and I spent a good part of the day with the two of them. We met in the Cigar Aficionado offices and chatted while smoking C.A.O.’s newest blend, the Lx2, which I think is the best one they make. It has a mix of Nicaraguan and Dominican filler, a binder from Honduras and a sun-grown wrapper from Nicaragua. The combination makes for a hearty, sweet smoke with good balance. We gave the Lx2 Toro 91 points in the December 9 Cigar Insider.

I get to see Tim, who is president of C.A.O., quite a bit, but my meetings with Cano are less frequent. Cano founded C.A.O. back in 1968, when he turned his engineer’s mind to the meerschaum pipes that he so enjoyed, and figured out a way to improve upon the design. He began selling the pipes, marking them with his initials, and C.A.O. was born. Pipes led to humidors, which led to cigars.

Cano explained one big reason the cigar business is better than the pipe business. “Cigars burn,” he said with a chuckle. People hold onto pipes forever, but once you use a cigar you need to go out and buy another. However it happened, I’m happy he got into the cigar business. We convinced Cano to sit in front of our cameras for an interview about how he founded C.A.O. more than 40 years ago. You’ll see it soon on Cigar Cinema.

I joined Gordon Mott and the Ozgeners for lunch across the street at I Trulli, where I’ve probably had more business lunches than anyplace else. The food was great, as always, and I had sautéed striped bass with some tomato and escarole. We finished the meal with shots of espresso (caffeine is key in the cigar industry) and we said our temporary goodbyes, as I’d be seeing Tim and Cano later that night.

After work, I took the subway uptown with Greg Mottola, our former tasting coordinator and now the associate editor of Cigar Aficionado, and walked into the Grand Havana Room. We were warmly welcomed with C.A.O. Lx2 Lanceros, which have recently been added to the lineup as a regular size. (More on that Tuesday in Cigar Insider.)
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A Smoke With Avo

Posted: Mar 17, 2009 2:46pm ET
Last night I had the chance to pair some of my favorite things: steak, cigars, wine and great company. It was the kickoff dinner for the Avo Compañero tour, commemorating Avo Uvezian’s 83rd birthday and the release of the newest Avo celebratory cigar.

All cigar smokers know Avo. He’s a wonderful guy with charm, style and his very own cigar brand. He has the energy of men a third his age, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes and a vibrant personality that lights up a room. Impossible to miss with his wide brimmed mimbre hat and impeccably tailored white suit, the talented musician sold his first cigars from his piano, and today is one of the best-known cigar stars in the world.

Since his 75th birthday eight years ago, Avo has celebrated each birthday by releasing a new limited-edition cigar. How could I say no?

Smoking while you dine is a lost art in New York. To make it work last night, Michael Herklots, the general manager of the Davidoff shops, turned his company’s Madison Avenue store into a cigar-friendly restaurant. Tables were brought in, about 60 enthusiasts sat down, and the wait staff from nearby Rothmann’s Steakhouse wheeled in steak dinners with all the trimmings, from seafood salad to a birthday cheesecake. Everyone smoked Avos while eating the delicious meal.

I really applaud all of you for being here tonight,” Herklots said at the start, a nod to the brutal economic climate. He spoke of the new Avo cigar, called the Compañero, which means “friend," or "comrade.”

The Compañero was passed out after we had finished our steaks. I find many Avos, like the Avo XO Intermezzo I smoked at the start of my meal, quite mild—this one is not. It reminded me somewhat of the Avo Signature (the second cigar I smoked at dinner), my favorite of the Avo blends. The Compañero is stronger still than the Signature, which I attribute to the heavy amount of Dominican ligero in the blend. There’s also a bit of Peruvian seco, and I tend to enjoy cigars made with a bit of Peruvian in the blend.
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Spring is Coming

Posted: Mar 10, 2009 4:41pm ET
This weekend we pushed ahead the clocks and, at least in the northeast, got a beautiful early taste of spring. On Sunday, I cleaned off our outdoor table while my wife sautéed some grey sole, and the family had our first outdoor lunch of the season. We got a bit fancy for a lazy Sunday afternoon, doing the full spread with the fish entree, some sauteed green beans in olive oil, some fresh Italian bread and a bottle of wine. Who could blame us for getting excited? The temperatures hit 70 degrees. After months indoors, it felt about as good as you can imagine.

I fired up an old Padrón 1964 Millennium Series to do the afternoon right. The cigars have aged gracefully, full of sweet coffee flavor with a little more spice than a typical Padrón. It was balanced and elegant, a fitting cigar for a great day.

When the weather starts to crack, it allows a lot of people to get back to their regular cigar-smoking schedule. Smoking indoors isn’t easy in many places. When it gets warm, the cigars come out. Before you know it baseball season will start, the golf clubs will be dusted off and out of the basement and the gray of winter will start to be replaced by green and colors of spring. I can’t wait.

Are you ready for cigar smoking weather?
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Puzzles and Cigar Barns

Posted: Feb 27, 2009 1:06pm ET
Cigar barns can be pretty darn big. They can also be pretty darn expensive. Making a sizeable one out of wood, the way it’s done in Connecticut and in Nicaragua, can cost $250,000 if you’re building it in the Dominican Republic. As my brother would say, that’s a lot of ‘scarole, especially in this economy.

So here’s a flash of genius from Daniel Núñez and the folks at General Cigar Co.—why build a new one when you can move an old one?

Check out the tobacco barn in this photo. It’s huge and it’s solid. I bet you never would imagine that it was moved 1,000 miles. Take a look.

That’s right—the big barn was originally constructed in the Talanga Valley of Honduras. General acquired the farm when it was awarded the cigar division of UST in 2004 to settle a lawsuit over smokeless tobacco (long story.) The farm was dormant, the cigar barns empty, when Núñez and his people decided to take it apart, number each board, and reassemble it here in Mao, the Dominican Republic. General has done the same thing with old barns from Connecticut, tractors, pipes and greenhouses.

After touring the farm, Daniel and I drove ot the highest point on Copata, which has a very large gazebo with views of the entire 1,200 acre farm. That was moved to, from another part of the Dominican Republic. “Are you good at puzzles?” I asked Daniel, who laughed heartily.

It’s a very impressive farm, and you have to applaud the ingenuity of utilizing assets that had long been written off the books and were otherwise going to waste. Who knew you could move something so large?
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Off to the Dominican Fields

Posted: Feb 20, 2009 4:12pm ET
My shoes were dusted with a thin layer of reddish brown dirt. My bare arms were being baked by the tropical sun and the smell of curing tobacco was in my nostrils. I was back on a tobacco farm.

I took the long drive from Santiago out to Mao today with a group of about 30 other people here for the final day of the ProCigar Festival. Some went to see a rum distillery, others to see where chocolate is made and others still to a Davidoff tobacco field (which I saw last year). We were headed to Copata, the farm company in Mao where General Cigar Co. grows most of its Dominican tobacco. I was last here some four years ago when the project was in its infancy. Today it’s a mega-complex and one of the most impressive tobacco farms in the world. It’s partially self sufficient—in addition to growing filler, binder and even wrapper tobacco, the 1,200 acre area grows vegetables, trees, produces a natural pesticide, has a fish farm, all kinds of livestock, a three million gallon reservoir and too many other things to mention here.

What stands out immediately, even to the unseasoned visitor, is the quality of the casas de tabacos, or curing barns. The Dominican Republic historically has some of the most meager curing barns in the cigar world — creaky looking things known as quisqueyas. The simplest offer some protection from the elements, but not enough, allowing in the weather and resulting in poor yields. Some of the ones General has here are incredible.

The biggest are a group of wooden monsters that General actually took apart in Honduras and rebuilt here, piece by piece. (I’ll have more on that in another blog, along with a video.) The barns are part of $8 million in equipment that General brought in from Honduras, Connecticut and elsewhere in the Dominican Republic.

This is the brainchild of Angel Daniel Núñez, the president and chief operating officer of General who is retiring soon. He’ll remain as a consultant, which is good for the company, as he knows this place like the back of his hand. Every cigar rolled at the massive General Cigar Dominicana factory in Santiago contains some tobacco grown in Mao.
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Dancing, Dominican Style

Posted: Feb 19, 2009 3:34pm ET
Last night was opening night in Santiago at the ProCigar Festival. I was sitting in a gorgeous setting, a table in the middle of an old estate once owned by a pal of former Dominican dictator Trujillo. Each table was resplendent with elaborate exotic plants, some as tall as a yardstick. Everything was green, orange and white, the entire setting for some 175 people set beneath a canopy of bright white, blowing in the gentle evening breeze. I was enjoying an Aurora 100 Años Lancero and patting my belly, which was sated on roast pork, roast goat, yucca, plantains and other Dominican delicacies.

Then I heard my name called to the stage.

The Dominican Republic is famous for its merengue, the fast paced dance with the non-stop beat. The ProCigar guys like to entertain, so they had a troupe of professional dancers doing the merengue while people finished their dinner. Then Jose Blanco of La Aurora took the microphone and announced a surprise: there was going to be a dancing contest. He began to call 10 people up to the stage.

Now if you’re Dominican, it’s likely that you can do the merengue pretty well. If you’re a cigar writer with very little rhythm, your chances are considerably lower. In fact, any kind of dancing really isn’t my thing. When I heard Blanco call my name, I uttered a few expletives under my breath and reluctantly walked up to the stage.

Ah, the lovely feeling of standing in front of nearly 200 people, knowing that you are about to embarrass yourself. I introduced myself to my dancing partner, a very patient young woman who knows how to dance the merengue very well, and she helped me do a few steps and spins. We didn’t win (big shock there) but I managed to dance without killing anyone on stage, so I consider the whole thing a modest success.

Note to Jose Blanco: I won’t forget this. Expect some form of revenge at the Vegas Big Smoke.

Today is day two of the ProCigar Festival, and my group headed out to the oldest free trade zone in the Dominican Republic to visit the first cigar factory to open there: Manufactura de Tabacos S.A., also known as Matasa. The fabrica, known for making Fonseca and Cubita cigars, opened its doors in 1975.
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