Cigar Aficionado

More Florida Days

Just got back from the South Beach Food & Wine Festival in Miami. There was some golf involved, but I won’t rub it in too much.

Here are few random observations.

I attended a cocktail reception before a dinner on Wednesday night for many of the Miami-based cigar manufacturers who were in town last week. You would think that in Florida, which has some of the most restrictive smoking laws in the United States, that we would have been relegated to the Hard Rock Café on the nearby Seminole reservation. But we were at Smith & Wollensky on South Beach, in a small outdoor terrace area. Beautiful. Smoking cigars with the dazzling Miami skyline in the background, and Fisher Island lit up across the channel into the cruise ship boat docks. (Later, we snuck out to watch the Miami Hurricanes defeat No. 5-ranked Duke 96-95 in a thrilling college basketball game.)

Thursday night was the kick-off night for SOBE 2008, and I attended a great dinner dubbed Divine Divas, a tribute to some of the outstanding female chefs and winemakers in the hospitality business. It was a fundraiser for Diabetes Research Institute in Miami hosted by Samantha Shanken Baker, vice president of market development for M. Shanken Communications Inc. Afterwards, the terrace outside the spectacular ballroom was opened up, and La Flor Dominicana cigars were offered along with a selection of Grand Marnier liqueurs including their 150-year-old. You never know how many people will stay after a long dinner, but there were more than 100 people out on the terrace, under the stars and the returning eclipsed moon, smoking cigars and sipping on Grand Marnier. What could be better than that!

On Friday, Cigar Aficionado and yours truly hosted the festival’s annual golf tournament, a fundraiser for the Florida International University’s hospitality program. More than 130 golfers joined in the fun at the newly renovated golf course at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. An original Donald Ross track, more than $5 million has been poured into in the last 12 months, and I guarantee you that you won’t find a better-conditioned golf course in the Miami area right now. Furthermore, if you love old designs that have been updated but still retain their original character and charm, this is it. Of course, cigars were served all day long, and I had a few more La Flor Dominicanas; the company was the official cigar sponsor of the event this year.

The Wine Spectator’s Best of the Best held court at the American Airlines arena on Friday night. Wineries and restaurants set up in the corporate sky boxes high above the arena floor. Later in the evening, the entry foyer outside the main doors to the arena was transformed into an outdoor lounge where, once again, La Flor Dominicana cigars passed out there wares to an appreciative audience of more than 100 people. I got to sample the brand new Coronado Lanceros, a size that I’ve always loved. It is a full-bodied panatela with a ton of flavor that has become the benchmark of the Coronado series. It will be on the market soon, so try it out, even if you’re not fond of that size.

Finally, on Saturday night, the festival held its annual tribute dinner, this time for Jean Georges Vongerichten, the multi-starred chef with some of the best restaurants in New York, including Jo Jo’s, Vong, and the eponymous Jean Georges. Like every year at the tribute dinner, huge names in the chef’s universe prepared dishes for the meal; Michel Richard from Los Angeles, Guy Savoy from Paris, Wylie Dufresne from New York, Nobu Matsuhisa from everywhere, Gordon Maybury from the Loews in Miami Beach, and there were deserts prepared by Jacques Torres and Claudia Fleming. Great wines were served, and Jean Georges was feted by the evening’s mistress of ceremonies, the stunningly lovely Padma Lakshmi, the host of Bravo’s Top Chef.

Once again, the diners were invited to retire to an outdoor terrace to sample the fine La Flor Dominicana cigars, and sit quietly under the stars to reflect on the festival’s great fun and great food.

Not bad. Four days in Miami. Four evenings of smoking cigars out under the stars. Not something that you would automatically expect in the state of Florida these days.