Posted: Jun 11, 2007 10:59am ETAlas, poor Frank, I knew him.
As I write this, about 12 hours have passed since the last episode of “The Sopranos.” At the heart of the show was a mob hit, the final hit in a long stream of gangland executions that defined the series since its inception.
(I think everyone on the planet knows what happened, but if you didn’t see the show and you want to be kept in the dark, stop reading this blog.)
The hit in question was on Phil Leotardo, the head of the New York crime family that was warring with the Soprano family in New Jersey. Leotardo is a perpetually grouchy character who seems to have been slighted by just about everyone who has come in contact with him. He even carries a grudge against the people at Ellis Island who bastardized his family name, changing it from the original Leonardo.
Leotardo, played beautifully by cigar-loving actor Frank Vincent, had set up the show’s climax by ordering the hits on Tony Soprano and the leaders of his family. As last night’s show began, Bobby Bacala lay in a coffin, Silvio Dante was in a hospital bed, and Soprano himself was on the run. Things looked grim.
But then the Soprano crew caught up to Leotardo. Right after the white-haired don says “bye bye” to his infant grandkids strapped into the back of his very, very heavy SUV, he gets shot in the head while telling his wife to pick up a prescription. She screams, leaving the very, very heavy car in drive. It starts rolling. The wheel turns, and the tires head toward Leotardo’s head, which turns into a makeshift speed bump. Let’s just say there won’t be an open casket at the funeral.
I met Frank Vincent about a year ago when I wrote a profile on him for Cigar Aficionado magazine. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew he loved cigars, and I knew he played tons of mob roles. As it turns out, he’s a friendly guy with a great sense of humor, and he’s much quieter than the bombastic killers he plays on screen. People, he says, confuse him with his characters.
Posted: Jun 1, 2007 2:55pm ETI recently found one of the finest places on earth to smoke a cigar. The only problem? It’s not always in the same place.
The place is the Queen Mary 2, the stately ocean liner owned by Cunard. I was on the ship last week for the Britannia Ball, a fundraiser sponsored by CIT Group Inc., which benefited the New York City Opera and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The ship (never call such a glorious vessel a boat, I’ve been told) was docked in Brooklyn for the evening’s festivities, and as we pulled up to the liner it was impossible not to be awed by its sheer size. The QM2 is longer than Tiger Woods hits a golf ball (1,132 feet, or 377 yards), carries a crew of 1,253 and weighs about 151,000 gross tons.
Inside, the ship is simply gorgeous. Everything has been decorated to the hilt, with fine marble, rich woods, and grand rooms that simply awe. The ship has a spa, a planetarium, and it cost $800 million to build. (For more on the QM2, read this story from Cigar Aficionado.)
Despite being docked in New York, home to one of the most Draconian smoking bans anywhere, the ship adheres to its own rules. That means you can smoke. At a bar before dinner? No problem: the smoking section is to the left. There were ashtrays in the nightclub and on the bar. Remember those?
The evening brought 800 guests together for cocktails, entertainment, dinner and dancing. I began with much of the crowd on one of the ships myriad decks, enjoying the warm weather and having a Bombay Saffire Martini. The crowd was festive, obviously taken with the beauty of the ship. Soon it was time for the entertainment, where Patti LuPone was performing songs from The Lady with the Torch.”
I like live music, but I love cigars, so I skipped the show to go in search of Churchills, the QM2s cigar bar. Soon I was up on deck No. 9, walking the length of the ship (boy, that’s a long ship) to find the cigar bar.
Posted: May 27, 2007 2:37pm ETIt’s Memorial Day weekend, so that means flying the flag, loading up on the beer and cigars and cooking barbecue. I’m not talking grilling—which I’ll also do—I’m talking take-your-time, low-and-slow barbecue.
When I was younger I used to think that I was barbecuing when I threw a hunk of chicken on the old gas grill and charred it to high heaven. Then I met Jack Bettridge. Jack’s not only the spirits and fashion guru here at Cigar Aficionado, he’s also an expert on barbecue. Heck, he even wrote a book about the subject called Barbecue America.
After studying Jack’s book and hanging out at his house enough weekends watching him turn hunks of plain meat into something that could bring a tear to your eye (while, I might add, smoking great cigars and drinking copious amounts of fine bourbon) I felt confident enough to try it on my own. I bought some baby back ribs and went to work smoking them over low heat for four hours.
Ever eat a piece of pork that’s been marinated in concrete mix and left to harden? That’s what my first try at barbecue tasted like. Jack, good friend that he is, choked down a few of the ribs and managed a smile.
After enough practice, and after getting a Weber Smoky Mountain smoker, I got better.
This morning I woke at 4 a.m., lit my pre-arranged smoker and put on two big pork butts, which had sat overnight in a peppery rub known as “The Renown Mr. Brown.” Using a ring full of Royal Oak briquettes and many chunks of hickory and apple wood for flavor, those two eight pounders have been cooking non-stop. As I write this, I can smell the sweet smoke of the hickory and apple coming in my window, and it’s 2:30 pm. Around 4 or 5 tonight, I'll take them off the fire, wrap them tightly in foil, and let them rest for an hour or two before pulling them into chunks with a pair of forks. Paired with some vinegar sauce, home made cole slaw and pickles, they'll make fantastic pulled pork sandwiches. My buddy Russ is doing ribs and pairing it all with various flights of Ridge Zinfandel. I'll bring some strong cigars and it'll be a good night.
Posted: May 22, 2007 1:54pm ETI was standing in the kitchen going over a few boxes of cigars. My wife, the lovely Manuela, was slicing some vegetables for the grill.
“What do you think?” I asked. “Five guys, four days of golf, three boxes of cigars. Good?”
She paused, giving the matter serious thought. “I’m not sure,” she said. “You might need some more.”
I loathe running out of cigars, especially when I’m heading on the road. Day trip? That calls for a handful of cigars. Two days? Many more. In this case, I was preparing for a four-day-golf trip to Myrtle Beach. I knew I needed plenty of heaters.
A long time ago, a guy I knew went on an eight-day trip with a dozen guys, and he brought precisely one dozen cigars. And he was the designated cigar supplier. His idea was to save the smokes so they could all smoke together on the last night.
Are you kidding me? Out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by gorgeous campgrounds and forest, and you don’t want to light at least one cigar a day? No thanks. Not my way of traveling.
You’ll be happy to know that I took Manuela’s advice, which is always a good idea. I brought four boxes of cigars, including a box of Padilla 1932 Lanceros and a box of La Gloria Cubana Reserva Figurado Selectos de Lujos, plus a few Arturo Fuente Short Stories and a smattering of other smokes.
Two of the guys on the trip are colleagues from Wine Spectator magazine, James Molesworth and Bruce Sanderson. James, perhaps the world’s biggest golf fan, planned the trip, and Bruce took care of the wine list. We also had a fair amount of beer, as well as a bottle of Booker’s Single Barrel Bourbon. We weren’t lacking in any department.
We played five courses on the trip: Barefoot Love, Barefoot Dye and Barefoot Fazio, plus True Blue and Caledonia Golf and Fish Club. We played more golf in four days than I typically do in a month. We landed on Thursday and screamed to our condo, dropped our bags and zipped to the Barefoot Fazio golf course, where we played 9 holes in a light drizzle. That under our belts, we cooked a huge meal, washed it down with fine wine (for the wines we drank, read Molesworth’s blog) and then headed out to the balcony to enjoy the cool air and smoke cigars, which we paired with the Booker's. On Friday we played 36 holes (True Blue and Caledonia), on Saturday we played another 36 (Dye and Love) and we wrapped it up Sunday with 18 at Fazio.
Posted: May 18, 2007 3:21pm ETI took a long cab ride up to Washington Heights the other day with Jose Blanco of La Aurora cigars. Blanco, who directs the marketing for La Aurora, the Dominican Republic’s oldest cigar maker, always seems to know what’s going on in the American cigar market. He’s also a lover of good food, so when he suggested a 20-minute drive to get to lunch, I knew it had to be good.
Before heading out, I fired up a special cigar Jose gave me. It was an Aurora’s 100 Años blend rolled in the shape of the company’s Preferido. It was robust, full of mineral and rich wood flavor, with a real kick. It was made for W. Curtis Draper’s 120th Anniversary party, and not part of the sizes normally sold by Aurora. I really enjoyed it, and I think it would have been ever better had I aged it about six months.
Michael Moretti, who manages this web site, joined us for the trip to Hispaniola, a small restaurant on West 181st Street. We were so far north from our office on 28th I thought we had hit Connecticut.
Hispaniola has very good food, described by owner Rolando Lantigua, who goes by the nickname “Junior,” as Dominican fusion. After a mixed plate of appetizers (the spare ribs, which were exceptionally spicy, are an absolute hit) we tucked into the main course: Argentine steak for myself and Moretti, butterfish for señor Blanco. The entrees were tasty, served in bento boxes with taro root fries. There were also impressive tostones, the fried, mashed green plantains I enjoy so much.
Lunch was great, but the real treat about Hispaniola is the new place Junior has opened next door: Fumée, a cigar shop and lounge. It’s a small, well-appointed shop with an accessory counter in front (manned by a pair of very attractive women who were smoking cigars), a barber’s chair in the middle and a walk-in humidor in back. On the mezzanine, right above the humidor, is the member’s lounge.
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.