Posted: May 15, 2007 4:08pm ETMy phone rang, and the voice was a familiar one. “It’s Joe Bastianich,” he said. “I’d like you to come out to my house for a party. My mom will be cooking, and so will Mario.”
Food by Lydia Bastianich, the queen of Italian dining in New York City? Food by Mario Batali, chef at my favorite restaurant, Babbo? And at the Bastianich household?
How could I say no?
Yesterday afternoon I made my way up Joe’s long driveway in Connecticut, where the party was already underway. A big tent was set up in the front of the house, and that was the primary wine station, where sommeliers from the Bastianich restaurants poured tastes of his wines from Friuli, Tuscany and Argentina, including Bastianich Tocai Friuliano, a crisp white from the northeast of Italy, near where the Bastianich family hails from.
This party shows Joe’s devotion to the good life, and it was a celebration of fine food, fine and cigars. I wasn’t shy. The main table was decorated with large, wooden pizza peels, each layered with paper-thin slices of proscuitto that had been sliced on Joe’s antique Berkel slicers, which are cranked by hand. A chef at one station gave out layers of lasagna, and behind a large Viking grill was Mario Batali, wearing sunglasses and one of his trademark vests, smiling as he put rich basil pesto over pulled pork sandwiches on incredibly crusty bread. There was also grilled octopus (fantastic), asparagus (always nice) and some incredibly large white beans in olive oil (great).
The diet begins tomorrow. Honest.
I met Joe’s mother, Lidia, who told me she enjoyed the article I wrote on Joe in a recent issue of Cigar Aficionado. She told me she was supervising the dishes that were coming from the kitchen, and let me know that the risotto was coming out. I headed over to another table, where I took a taste of risotto made with a puree of spring vegetables, topped with goat cheese and thick, rich balsamic vinegar. Then there was the gelato station.
Posted: May 8, 2007 11:07pm ETYesterday I had lunch with cigarmaker Rocky Patel, Las Vegas cigar retailer Michael Frey and New York City retailer David Kitchens. We took an outdoor table at Rothmann’s Steakhouse on East 54th Street and enjoyed the picture-perfect weather and the midtown Manhattan scenery while smoking cigars.
I’m a Rothmann’s convert. I’ll admit to not loving the restaurant the first time I visited several years ago, but my first taste of the Porterhouse for two changed my mind for good. In a city with a couple of exceptional steak joints, this steak is an attention-grabber, served on a plate loaded with juices from the rare meat. It’s a solid, large meal that can sate two people. (Although a golf buddy says he once polished one off himself.)
Even if you’re not a steak maniac, Rothmann’s policy toward cigar smokers is worthy of a visit. Management treats cigar smokers with class, and welcomes them at the small outdoor seating area out front. We ate, drank and puffed away without a complaint. Ten years ago there were plenty of places in New York that welcomed my cigar. Today there are few.
The pleasant cigar oasis, ideal weather and very good wine had us all in good spirits. Frey, an owner of Casa Fuente and other cigar stores in Vegas, said business was good despite the recent smoking ban. Kitchens, who runs the Davidoff shop on Madison Avenue (just steps from the steakhouse) said business was exceptional, despite the New York City smoking ban. And Rocky said he was coming off his best year ever.
I puffed my cigar and asked the question I’ve been asking just about everyone in the cigar business lately. Where are people smoking their cigars? If restaurants are out, if bars are smoke free, how can cigar sales be so strong?
Kitchens says people are smoking in cars. Rocky says they’re smoking in stores, with cigar shops becoming much more in many cities, adding lounges for people to not only buy cigars, but to sit and enjoy them.
Posted: May 6, 2007 11:14am ETYesterday was a picture-perfect Derby Day, and my wife and I attended a local party with about four dozen other couples, dressed in our derby finest. It was a top-notch affair, complete with a Dixie band playing Southern favorites, country ham on homemade biscuits and honey-dipped fried chicken, and maybe just a few too many mint juleps made with sour mash bourbon.
And yeah, there were cigars.
Few of my friends have cigar-friendly homes—mine is a rarity—but this outdoor party meant cigars were almost as common as the ornate hats worn by nearly every lady in attendance.
Our host had a box of Padrón 2000 Maduros open on a table next to the bar, plus a box of private-label Connecticut-shade Churchills for those who preferred a very mild smoke. Before I could take one of the Padróns, my buddy Jeff handed me a Montecristo No. 4 brought back from a recent international trip. He was paying me back for a cigar I had given him a few weeks ago.
I lit up the slightly dry Monte, took a puff, and then took a swig of the mint julep. The cigar was lovely, with an appealing oaky wood character and a touch of leather. I smoked and enjoyed the crisp breeze as a scattering of dogwood blooms fluttered in the air.
I was about halfway done with the Montecristo as the party was getting into full swing. After the band played My Kentucky Home, host Jay stood in front of the crowd and auctioned off the Derby horses: the money for the horses went into a pot, most of which would go to the owner of the No. 1 horse. (Second place was worth $200; third place $100.) I joined a consortium with my friends Mark and Tim. We had plenty of confidence, despite our near-complete lack of horse racing knowledge, and our inability to name even one horse running in the race. We quickly consulted a betting page and felt a little better about our chances.
The bidding was furious for early favorite Curlin, but Mark had a good feeling about another horse, Street Sense, who started off at 10-1 but was down to 7-1 when we were doing the auction. Bidding began on Street Sense: Twenty bucks, then $40, then soon it was $80, pretty pricey for this particular contest. We were in at $110 when another bid came in at $120. Mark raised his hand for $130, but it was too late. We had missed Street Sense. No problem—we took Scat Daddy in a later round. I took a final drag on the Montecristo and headed into the house to watch the race.
Posted: Apr 25, 2007 4:46pm ETI just lit a La Gloria Cubana Reserva Figurado Selectos de Lujo, one of my favorite cigars. It’s a seven-inch long perfecto made from fourth priming tobacco that’s blended with an emphasis on balance. What a great smoke.
Puffing it this morning reminded me of my first La Gloria, which I smoked before I started working at Cigar Aficionado magazine. Before I worked at the magazine, I was a reader, and I used the cigar ratings to expand my taste in cigars. I wrote down the high scoring cigars, taking note of the flavors that seemed appealing, and headed out to cigar stores. Usually I could find what I wanted, but not a La Gloria.
If you’re a longtime cigar smoker you remember what it was like to find a La Gloria Cubana in the mid 1990s. After James Suckling told the world about this phenomenal brand, they were nearly impossible to find.
It must have been 1994 when I got my hands on my first La Gloria. I was in Manhattan on business one day, and I stopped at a cigar shop called Arnold’s, on 42nd and Madison. (Sadly, it’s no longer there.) Arnold’s seemed to have everything a cigar smoker would ever need, and in true New York style it was crammed into a very small space. I looked at the endless cigar selection, and there it was, sitting behind glass—a partially filled box of La Gloria Cubana Corona Gordas. I bought a few, took the train home, and lit one up as soon as I sat down in my car.
The cigar was brilliant. I can’t remember the specific flavors, but I know it was delicious. It had a little kick to it, spicier than most of the cigars I smoked in those days, and I remember how wonderfully it was constructed. I have this distinct image of looking down in the darkness in my car at the burning ash and watching the red glow, perfectly framed by the rings of the cigar’s ash.
I had a big smile on my face, happy because I had obtained a hard-to-find smoke, and exuberant because the rare gem was living up to its considerable hype.
Posted: Apr 19, 2007 4:30pm ETOn the way home from work the other night I dropped in on Club Perfecto, my local cigar club. Pete Johnson was in town, and I wanted to talk to him about his Tatuaje cigars.
I walked in the door, said hello to some of the people I know, then shook hands with Pete. He gave me one of his new Tatuaje Havana VI cigars. I lit it up, ordered a bottle of Heineken, and took a seat.
Tatuajes are one of the hottest new brands on the market, and I’ve enjoyed just about every one I’ve smoked. They’re bold, leathery, Cuban-esque cigars made in El Rey de Los Habanos, a tiny factory in Little Havana. How tiny? It has a dozen cigar rollers. For perspective, big cigar factories have hundreds of rollers. A midsize operation such as Padrón has nearly 100. Small factories have 50 rollers, so having only a dozen is extremely small.
The factory is run by Pepin Garcia, and it makes stunning smokes with Cuban-style craftsmanship. But there’s only so much room at that shop, and labor is expensive in Miami. So Pepin opened a new factory in Nicaragua last year, which lets him make more cigars for people like Pete. The result is the Havana VI.
Pete told me he was worried about this cigar when it was first released. The factory in Estelí, Nicaragua, which I visited in January, was just getting started, and he was uncertain if the first cigars would be as good as he’s come to expect. He told me he was sweating his first ratings in Cigar Aficionado and Cigar Insider. (We buy cigars at retail for those ratings.)
I had my doubts as well: I thought the quality of the brand would suffer as production soared. But so far, so good: the first ratings for the Havana VI are excellent. One rated 93 points, and the brand averaged 89.2 in a vertical brand tasting in the March 13 Cigar Insider. Not bad.
Posted: Apr 16, 2007 11:11am ETThis weekend’s tireless rain left its mark on my house, specifically in my basement. The water poured in (“The S.S. Savona is sinking!” I shouted to my wife) which meant it was time to head downstairs and try to clean up. I spent much of my Sunday sweeping water from the basement to the garage and into the driveway.
That’s right—sweeping water. When there’s enough, it sweeps quite nicely.
I took the mess in fairly good spirits (when you get 6.5 inches of rain in a day, it has to go somewhere) but then came the straw that broke this camel’s back. I took a cigar break mid-day and took out a Fuente Fuente OpusX Lancero, a gift of Carlos Fuente Jr. It was my last one. I lit the smoke, took a few rewarding puffs, then the slim cigar slipped from my mouth and went right into the water at my feet.
Posted: Apr 12, 2007 12:29pm ETI’m back from Chicago, site of Cigar Aficionado’s latest Big Smoke, which was Tuesday night. I met quite a few happy cigar smokers, and who could blame them? They were lighting up indoors, which you can do in fewer and fewer places every day, and they sampled cigars from a host of cigarmakers, drink fine spirits, wine and beer and had a great time. They even met some of the big names in the industry, including Carlos Fuente Jr., Tim Ozgener, Christian Eiroa and Rocky Patel.
(They might want to change the name to the Snowy City though—I woke up Wednesday morning to a slushy mess that cancelled three consecutive flights of mine. I felt lucky to sleep at home last night.)
Tuesday was a three-cigar night for me. I started with a C.A.O. Sopranos Associate at a cocktail party preceding the Big Smoke. (Joe Gannascoli, who played the late Vito Spatafore on The Sopranos, was at the party, so what could have been more appropriate to light up?) It was very tasty, but I wasn’t able to smoke more than about a third, because I had to run an errand in a different part of the hotel, the Hyatt Regency O’Hare, which no longer allows smoking in its lobby. Tough break for me.
Cigar No. 2 was a new one from Puros Indios. It was an 83rd Anniversary Perfecto Maduro, made in honor of Rolando Reyes Sr.’s 83 years. I’ve met Reyes a few times, including once in his factory in Danlí, Honduras. He’s a fascinating man, and one of most gifted cigar rollers in the business. His construction techniques are amazing. The perfecto is a smaller version of his Diadema, which might be the toughest cigar to roll in the cigar world. Imagine a pointed head, a foot that has curves like a light bulb, and then try to make it all look good using only a tobacco leaf and a curved knife. Not easy. The cigar had a rich, earthy flavor. It’s just hitting the market now.
My last cigar was my own personal reward for the day, something I had brought from the office. It was another perfecto, a Padrón 80th Anniversary that I brought back from my January trip to Nicaragua. It’s a flavor bomb, rich, sweet, spicy at just the right times…lovely.
Posted: Apr 10, 2007 9:43am ETA cigar book hit my desk the other day. I flipped through it, then stopped at a sidebar that caught my eye.
“I have never tasted cinnamon in a cigar. Neither have I tasted nutmeg, leather, fruit, or a hint of straw. Cigars taste like cigars…” The quote, in a book by author Tad Gage, is attributed to an unnamed cigar company executive.
It doesn’t take the team at CSI to figure out where this barb is aimed. We use tasting descriptors in every issue of Cigar Aficionado, and this is hardly the first time someone has taken a swipe at them.
Saying cigars taste like cigars is about as useful as saying wine tastes like wine. If all cigars tasted the same, what would be the point of sampling different brands? Of blending tobacco from various countries? From different parts of the plant?
When I first started smoking cigars I didn’t think much about things like vanilla, leather, wood or spices when I smoked. I thought about strength, and I thought about construction, and of course I noted if the cigar tasted good or tasted bad. But once I began studying the notes in Cigar Aficionado, first as a reader and then as an employee of the magazine, I took a little more time with what I was smoking to try and see if the flavor descriptors worked for me. When I found a cigar sweet, I thought about the sweetness—was it sweet like a chocolate bar? Like cocoa powder? Did that rich taste remind me of that cup of cappuccino I had the other night? Was that aftertaste on that Connecticut-shade cigar creamy?
Tasting notes are a tool. They help describe the sensations a cigar blend brings to your palate and assist in letting you know what to expect from a cigar beyond simple descriptors such as “good,” “rich” or “pleasant.” Before I was a cigar taster, I was a curious cigar smoker, and when I found flavors that appealed to me in cigar ratings I found ways to buy cigars that went beyond the rating itself.
Posted: Apr 4, 2007 11:50am ETCan a cigar be too strong to enjoy? That’s the gist of a recent thread in our Cuba and Cuban Cigars forum. A reader picked up a box of Bolivar Corona Extras (fine cigars, by the way) and was overwhelmed by their power, so much so that he didn’t enjoy them at all.
I haven’t had such an experience with Cuban Bolivars, but I’ve smoked a few cigars that have been too strong for me to enjoy. And I smoke a fair number of cigars, so if I have a problem with a cigar being too strong, I bet it happens to a good number of cigar smokers.
After Ashton VSGs became a raging hit, some cigarmakers responded by releasing blends with pumped up power. The VSGs were strong—early advertisements actually suggested the smoker be seated before lighting up—and helped spark a strong cigar trend. Some of the competing cigars were lovely, but a few contained all power and no finesse. I like a strong smoke, but I don’t like smoking something that is noticeably unbalanced. I’ll take peppery flavor but give me some sweetness to keep my tongue from hurting.
I remember a meeting in our offices many years ago when a group of cigar executives came in with a new blend. They had created the strongest cigar they could possibly make. We lit up, and from puff No. 1 it was as if I had put flame to a Scotch Bonnet. My throat burned. My tongue was aflame. And it felt like a mule had kicked me in the stomach.
I couldn’t smoke the entire cigar, and neither could anyone else in the room. I probably gave it a half an inch. I don’t think the men ever intended to sell the cigar: it was more science project than serious product development. But smoking it wasn’t fun at all.
I drop in on occasion to a cigar club in Connecticut called Club Perfecto, and last year during baseball season a club member named Dave handed me a smoke that had been dubbed “The Lobotomizer.” I thanked him, lit it up, and found it just too strong for my palate. (Who could have guessed?)
Posted: Mar 30, 2007 10:46am ETI recently fired up a Cohiba Siglo I with a good friend. I love those little cigars. After a few rich puffs we got to talking, and before long I was reminiscing about the first time I tried that particular size.
It was more than ten years ago, January 1996, and I was in the middle of my first trip to Cuba. I was a newcomer to the magazine at the time, only on the job about six months, and I was tagging along with European editor James Suckling and George Brightman, at the time the magazine's director of business development. Both were cigar experts. I had smoked plenty of cigars, but to these two I was as green as a cigar-boom corona, and I was just happy to be along for the ride. I was soaking up information as best I could, and smoking more cigars a day than I ever thought possible. And I was in Cuba!
After spending a few days in Havana, we had driven out to Pinar del Río in this ridiculous purple Hyundai we were given as a rental car. We were there to tour the tobacco fields, and, of course, we were smoking dozens and dozens of great Cuban cigars.
But it was a tough time to buy Cuban cigars, even in Cuba. Double coronas were just about impossible to find, as were many robustos. This was, in part, our fault—Cigar Aficionado had built a worldwide demand for big and thick cigars, and even the shops in Cuba were out of stock on many smokes. It wasn’t easy to find Partagas Serie D No. 4s, and forget about Hoyo and Punch Doubles or Partagas Lusitanias.
But we made do. We had plenty of Bolivar Belicoso Finos from the Partagas factory store, incredible Juan Lopez No. 1s and 2s with some of the most lush, brick-red wrappers I had ever seen, plenty of La Gloria Cubanas in various sizes and just about every Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo cigar that was made.