Cigar dinners are rare. I remember there was a time in the not-too-distant past where restaurants had no problem renting out their private rooms for exclusive cigar affairs. If a bit of smoke occasionally wafted out into the main dining room when a door opened, people generally shrugged it off. Now, that same bit of smoke causes tirades of public indignation, not to mention fines, lawsuits and, worst of all, the threat of being closed down.
Today, cigar dinners are either held outdoors, under special license, or illegally. But you can still find them, especially as the weather gets warmer and restaurants open up their patios and rooftop spaces. It never hurts to have a sympathetic restaurant owner who also smokes cigars. But this blog entry isn't (totally) intended to bemoan the loss of cigar rights. This entry is really about a particular cigar dinner held by one of the country's top chefs in one of Manhattan's top restaurants (and I don't use the term "top" lightly).
Last week, chef and cigar smoker Charlie Palmer held the Pigs, Pinot & Puros dinner at his iconic Aureole restaurant in Manhattan. Don't be fooled by the indelicacy of the title—the food was pretty sophisticated and the pairings very well thought out, especially the cigars. A lot of the time, the smokes at cigar dinners are quite arbitrary and passed out without consideration to the food or wine. Not here. Michael Herklots of Nat Sherman sat down with Aureole's executive chef Marcus Gleadow-Ware and seriously considered how certain Nat Sherman cigars would pair with the basic elements of each course. What we got was a beautifully orchestrated meal complemented by interesting wines and some very nice smokes-or, great smokes complemented by a very nice meal and interesting wines.
No, the event was not indoors (one day again, maybe), but in an adjacent outdoor space called The Patio, where Aureole usually serves nightly cocktails. The restaurant is on 42nd St. between 6th Ave. and Broadway, which is right on the fringes of Times Square, so the foot traffic certainly thickens as you walk your way westward from Grand Central Station, past the public library and past Bryant Park to Aureole. Despite the crowds, the patio is a pleasant, airy oasis that makes you forget how just one block away, half a million clueless tourists are bumping into each other while taking pictures of themselves buying T-shirts and hot dogs.
As for the food at Pigs, Pinot & Puros, this wasn't your ordinary meat-and-potatoes type of cigar dinner. The porcine presentations were creative enough to go outside the pork-chop comfort zone of mainstream America, yet didn't stray too far into the exotic world of nose-to-tail dining (no snouts, brains or ears). A perfect balance. Here's what we ate:
Reception showed a bounty of cured meats, terrines and spreads. Charcuterie if you're French, salumi if you're Italian, like me. These meats were all the brainchild of Joshua Smith, a young and enthusiastic meat savant who has dedicated his life to raising Berkshire pigs and mastering the art of dry curing meats. He admittedly leans French in his craft (I forgive him) but everything from his silky pancetta to his tactile dried sausage (saucisson sec) to his coppa (dry-cured hog's neck) to his homemade liverwurst spoke to European craft, rather than mass-market cold cuts.
I was impressed, and am, admittedly, a bit of a snob when it comes to cured meats. The fats were elegant and mouth-coating, the salt content ideal, and all were elevated by a Nat Sherman Timeless Collection Divino (Top 25 Cigar of 2013, Cigar Aficionado, 93 points), which is rolled in a classic, double-tapered perfecto shape. According to Herklots, this was chosen because of the cigar's dynamic nature (it changes a lot throughout the duration of the smoke) as well as its ability to stand up to salt and fat. He was spot on. Three wines were served as well: A Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs, Brut North Coast (California), and, if you didn't want the bubbles, Chassagne-Montrachet, Louis Jadot, Domaine Duc Magenta Monopole Clos de Chapelle, Morgeot, Premier Cru Burgundy (France).
The Divino was intended to carry you over into the next course—a ribbon of Mangalitsa pork guanciale atop a slow-poached egg bejeweled with a dollop of Northern Lights Caviar. In case you're not up on your pork parlance, Mangalitsa is a Hungarian breed of prized pig known for its curly fleece and distinctive lard. Guanciale is the name of the jowl cut. In other words, guanciale is face bacon, which differs from more traditional bacon cut from the belly. The ham-and-egg ensemble was served on a fine broccoli puree and paired with a Hamilton Russell Vineyards, Hemel-en-Aarde Valley from South Africa.
Our meal moved on to the next course: a brick of braised pork belly and red ruby shrimp with yellow corn and Mousseron mushrooms. Hunks of pork belly are savored by pig connoisseurs because of the cut's melty layers of fat and meat. Topping the pork with a crustacean is an added bonus. I bit into the shrimp, which was, of course, luscious and flavorful, and it reminded me of the sad reality that most people will go their entire lives thinking that shrimp is rubbery by nature and prefrozen as a matter of course. I can't tell you how many times I'm at a supposedly "high end" restaurant that serves rubbery shrimp cocktail and charges as though these shrimp were just pulled out of the coastal seas an hour ago. Food procurement and distribution has evolved so drastically, it's truly sad to see a restaurant that refuses to get with the times. No matter. I consider Aureole beyond reproach in this department, and the shrimp really were quite sublime in both texture and flavor. Two pinots were poured: an Elk Cove Vineyards, Mount Richmond, Willamette Valley from Oregon and a Felton Road, Bannockburn, Central Otago from New Zealand.
Herklots introduced the Nat Sherman Sterling Perla as an intermezzo smoke, noting that the effervescent qualities of this particular tobacco blend made for a good palate cleanser. I smoked it slowly and was sure to keep a cigar lit during dinner.
My colleague, David Savona, once mentioned in a blog about the love-it-or-hate-it relationship people have with smoking while eating. Not everyone thinks that the palate can accurately register all the flavors of food, wine and smoke in the same sitting. He's all for it, and I agree. I made the Perla last into the next course, where small medallions of roasted suckling pig loin were overshadowed by an imposing battlement of pork shoulder and potato terrine. Small mounds of peach compote added sweetness not only to the dish but to the wine, a George, Leras Family Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County Pinot.
The meal ended rich and heavy as each guest received a dark, oily Nat Sherman 1930 Gran Robusto. Its dense, chewy smoke was chosen to complement the chocolate cremeux with Manjari chocolate, bacon salted caramel, an "Aureo" cookie and chocolate sorbet. Two additional wines were poured: Sea Smoke, Southing, and Sea Smoke, Ten, both Santa Rita Hills from California.
How does one get a seat at the Pigs, Pinot & Puros dinner? They pop up unexpectedly, so if this sounds like something you'd want to be part of, you'll have to periodically check Aureole's events calendar on their website. I know that saying "check the website" isn't exactly insider advice, especially after the fact, but when I asked, they were pretty tight lipped about it. They probably don't know the next date themselves. Either that or I'm just not getting re-invited.