Once a town where shipbuilders and whalers drank whiskey together, historical Port Jefferson offers one of the most picturesque, not to mention one of the last, places in New York State to smoke a cigar and have a steak. This quaint and charming port town is located on Long Island's north shore and is home to Pace's Steak House and, a stone's throw away, Smoke Signals tobacconist and cigar club. Together, they make for perfect good-life complements, well worth a trek out of the city.
Walk down the village main street as ferries and fishermen pull in and out of the harbor, and you can't help but feel that you have discovered a tranquil gem away from the strip malls and chain restaurants that plague today's suburbia. Hidden behind the facade of the port town's shops is Pace's -- a family-owned chop house cozily designed with an old-world feel that might fool you into thinking it has been serving steaks since the days of Teddy Roosevelt. Funny thing is, the restaurant has been around only for a few years, but no matter. The classic ambience is one that you'd expect -- exposed brick walls, dim chandeliers, tin-stamp ceilings, a vibrant bar and local politicians seated in remote, candle-lit corners.
If you're lucky enough to get a table near the windows, and your timing is right, you can watch the sun set behind the trees while you peruse the well-balanced menu of seasoned and unseasoned steaks, which are carefully dry-aged on the premises. A hearty selection of seafood, lamb, chicken, duck and pasta dishes make Pace's a happy meeting point for carni-philes and carni-phobes alike. While the Cabernet-heavy wine list won't exactly make an oenophile swoon, there are solid selections from France, Italy, California, Spain and other regions. None of the wines' vintages are printed on the menu -- a no-no for a serious restaurant. Many mid-level steak houses are guilty of this omission as well, perhaps with the assumption that steak eaters will drink whatever the house is pouring, but an establishment pining for an upscale clientele, especially in the wake of wine's current hyper awareness, should really know better.
|Pace's dining room has an old-world elegance.|
Regardless, the wine list offers some potential treasures and bargains provided you get the right year, so ask, and don't feel bad about making the waiter run back and forth to and from the wine cellar. A Château Malescot Exupery Bordeaux, for example, at $95 a bottle is a great wine for a great price so long as it's not a 2002. An Argyle Willamette Valley Pinot Noir at $40 is another bargain, especially from 2004. For those chilly nights, a Bertani Amarone ($130) or a Barolo (around $60) will be just what the wine doctor ordered, but avoid 2002, a bad year for Italy in general. So I ended up playing it safe with Frog's Leap red zin from Napa, which is going to be good at pretty much any vintage.
I thought the Frog's Leap an appropriate segue into the 12-ounce filet mignon I decided on. The $33.95 price tag that came with it was easy enough to swallow too -- one thing I can't stand are city prices outside of the city, and fortunately, Manhattan's prices have not emigrated to Pace's. In addition to the steak, I sampled three side dishes, all priced in the $6 to $7 range.
Now I love a rare steak and if I trust the steak house, I'll even order it blue with a cold center. But it's common for cold-center steaks to continue cooking by way of their own heat, fading the cut's ruby-red core to a lighter shade of pink. This being said, my steak arrived exactly with the cold core I asked for, which is something even some of the Manhattan steak houses have been having trouble serving up to me lately. The tender filet gave the knife little resistance, and had a great flavor profile of subtle minerals, beef blood and even slight buttery accents, though as far as I know Pace's kitchen does not cook its steaks in butter.
Sides of creamed spinach and mashed potatoes were enjoyable, but what really took the Best Side award was the three-cheese baked macaroni and cheese. It arrived in a hot plate, bubbling with a pleasantly browned top skin. After allowing it to sit, as per the waiter's suggestion, I dug in. Pace's uses a tubettini-shaped pasta, an interesting variation of the normal elbow macaroni. The flavors of the three cheeses really took me by surprise with their complexity. I have never tasted a mac n' cheese that actually had a long finish, but this one did. Thinking back, it makes sense that Pace's can do al forno pasta such as mac 'n cheese so well, as its menu also includes a solid selection of traditional Italian-American pasta dishes (The family started out in the restaurant business serving Italian food.) Had I not been so full, I would've ordered another side of the macaroni, but I needed to save room for dessert, which ended up being crème brûlée.
|Inside the humidor at Smoke Signals|
If you can still walk after the type of big meal you get at Pace's, make your way 100 paces up Wynn Lane and around the corner to Smoke Signals, a cigar shop and smoking lounge. After the usual silent greeting of a wooden cigar-store Indian, you'll find yourself in an unusual antechamber where you have a few options. You can start by talking to Scott Stanley, one of Smoke Signals' triumvirate of owners. At nearly 6 feet 5 inches, he's a walking gallery of tattoos and piercings, but don't let this intimidate you. Scott is friendly and knowledgeable, and is always eager to discuss cigars. You may run into Donna, Scott's wife and also an owner of Smoke Signals. Make no mistake, she is by no means just a pretty store fixture, but is a wealth of knowledge and cigar-smoking experience. Then there's Raymond Grinere, the other owner. Diplomatic by nature, Ray will go out of his way to make sure you find something in his humidor that suits your palate. And this shouldn't be too hard. The walk-in humidor has a great selection of boutique brands such as Padrón, Padilla, Rocky Patel, Cusano, C.A.O. and La Flor Dominicana. So once you've made nice with the owners, they'll be happy to usher you into their humidor, or leave you alone to decide on your own. On perusing their selections, I saw something interesting called Phoenix.
"That's a cigar Rocky Patel makes for us. Why don't you try it?" Scott suggested, handing me a few. Then we stepped back into the antechamber and into the cigar club smoking lounge for a sudden change of ambience. This room is not merely some little cigar shop appendage with a few chairs, but a deep, alluring space designed with the serious, sophisticated smoker in mind. The lounge is dimly lit and warmly furnished with leather chairs, leather couches and cigar lockers. A big-screen TV is usually on, but in no way disturbs the mood. A coffee bar at the end of the room offers a nice selection of espresso, cappuccino and café Americano. You won't find alcohol being served at Smoke Signals, but you're welcome to bring your own.
|The Smoke Signals cigar lounge|
The crowd there ranges from the stately to the casual though all seem to share a love and respect for cigars and the cigar-smoking experience. Some are socializing, while a few ceremoniously light up in silence and concentration, devoting themselves completely to those first few puffs, perhaps to the entire cigar, but do so without being melodramatic about it. The owners of Smoke Signals understand this type of smoker and clearly understand the relationship between cigar smoking and ambience. And this is evidenced by the way the furniture is arranged. Plenty of solitary spots can be found throughout the lounge, and with an espresso in hand, I retired to one of them, a quiet alcove dubbed The Library. It's a semi-private section just outside of your peripheral vision and even has a small selection of books with anything from a pictorial of the Vietnam War to vampire literature. So, with my steak-saturated palate screaming at the top of its taste buds for a cigar, I lit up that complimentary Phoenix cigar and wasn't at all surprised to find that I enjoyed it. It burned well and had the dark, subtle earth tones that many of Rocky's cigars are known for. This is the type of place that, three puffs into your cigar, you feel as comfortable and at home as if you've been going for years. The afterglow of a big meal makes you settle in all the faster.
There are several options for using the club: there's an annual membership package with locker privileges, an annual membership sans locker privileges, and a per diem membership price for those who want to get out of the city for a day, or just get away to one of the few Long Island villages left that has retained much of its character over time. Because of Suffolk County's recent tightening of smoking restrictions, New York needs places like this now more than ever.
Pace's Steak House
318 Wynn Lane
Port Jefferson, NY
308 Main St.
Port Jefferson, NY