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IMG: Gersh Kuntzman
 
 
Tobacco in Your Tiramisu?  
Faced with the smoking ban, several New York restaurants are putting tobacco in their food and drinks. Our non-smoking scribe samples a few offerings  
   

NEWSWEEK WEB EXCLUSIVE
 
    May 19 —  Never let it be said, dear reader, that I don’t put myself on the line for you. Other reporters may say they’re traveling the country to find out the truth, but you can rest assured that it’s not just talk with me. When there’s an expense account to exploit, readers can be confident that Gersh Kuntzman will be there to get to the bottom of the story.  

   
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       OR, IN THIS case, a Martini glass.
       As I write this, I am guzzling something called a Nicotini, which, as the name suggests, is a cocktail with a smoker’s cough—an ethereal blend of vanilla-flavored vodka, the coffee liqueur Kahlua and a splash of tobacco juice.
       And later, when I looked back on my increasingly seismic handwriting, it appeared I enjoyed it. According to my notes, the Nicotini had a pleasing taste, which I described as either like a Maryland crabcake or a vanilla cupcake that had been sitting near an ashtray for an hour or so. (I later checked with a handwriting analyst and she determined that the notes said “cupcake.”)
       As you know, I am not a smoker, yet for the last few weeks—in the interest of providing only the most comprehensive coverage, I assure you—I have been eating and drinking tobacco all over New York City.
       There’s a reason for this, of course. See, here in (No) Sin City, the mayor recently made it illegal for smokers to enjoy the legal product known as cigarettes while in the confines of bars and restaurants. Granted, the new anti-smoking restriction follows a nationwide trend, but New Yorkers have taken the butt ban particularly hard.
       As a non-smoker, these have been great times. I can go out, get plastered on the company dime, and not come home smelling like the room where they settled the contentious 1880 GOP convention. But even though I am a non-smoker, I am not without feelings: I believe that forcing smokers into the back alleys of our nation’s entertainment districts—where they huddle and grab a quick smoke before rushing back inside restaurants, bars and nightclubs—is just unfair.
       But smokers are fighting back. If they can’t get their nicotine fixes from a smoke, they can go to an increasing number of New York restaurants that will serve them the much-reviled, cancer-causing weed in another form. Get ready for Tobacco: The Ingredient!
       “We had to do it because we’ve got a lot of pissed off smokers in this city right now,” said Yann de Rochefort (do you think he gave me a fake name?), owner of Suba, where I drank so many Nicotinis that I not only woke up in bed the next morning with a hangover, but with two Philip Morris executives.
       It must be said, however, that there are some things about tobacco that I just don’t like. First, there’s the cancer thing. Kinda scary. But second, and more important, I really don’t like the taste. True, since the beginning of time, men have used that excuse to avoid everything from vegetables to oral sex, but tobacco really is tough to stomach. Forget stomach, this stuff is tough even to mouth.
       On the tongue, tobacco is harsh and stinging—and tastes like chili powder that’s been buried in a wet leather pouch in a dank underground cavern for a year, removed from the pouch, dried and rolled around in some dirt.
       For chefs or bartenders, working with tobacco isn’t as simple as unrolling a cigarette into the split pea soup or Triple Sec. Suba’s De Rochefort said his bartenders “experimented” with many different techniques before figuring out how to make a “tea” out of tobacco leaves that, when mixed with the right alcohol, becomes a Nicotini. I tasted the unmixed tea, which was a little like Earl Grey (if Earl Grey was kidnapped, bound, gagged and imprisoned for six months in a salmon smoking plant, that is).
       More experimentation was needed to figure out which combination of alcohols would be the best host for this ashtray water. Suba eventually decided to take what most people call a Black Russian and turn into what I call a Black and Smelly Russian (aka the Nicotini). In the interest of science, I assure you, I ordered a succession of Suba’s other cocktails and put a few spoonfuls of the tobacco tea in each. Although I have become addicted to the Nicotini (a coincidence? I wish), my verdict is that tobacco works best in a Manhattan—which is perfect thematically, because a Suba Martini glass is the only place where Manhattan and tobacco can be in the same place at the same time.
       But increased tobacco consumption is not just a bar trend. At Serafina Sando, a Midtown restaurant, the full “tobacco menu” has been selling like nicotine-filled hotcakes since its spring debut. Like the mixologists at Suba, Chef Sando Fioriti tinkered for three months before finally stumbling on the technique that lets him extract the earthy, smoky sweetness of pure Virginia tobacco, without all the harshness (the secret involves butter and brandy). Then he spoons a little of the tobacco juice into the cream sauce for his gnocchi appetizer, ladles an ample portion into the Barolo wine sauce for his filet mignon and drizzles a tiny amount into the cream for a panna cotta dessert.
       The result is a hint of tobacco taste—but even a hint goes right to the back of your throat and collects there in a smoky pools that bring to mind both the romantic wine bars of Paris and the betting floor of an Albany OTB.
       “It’s just an announcement of flavor,” owner Vittorio Assaf said. “We use it as a spice, not an ingredient.”
       When I told Assaf that non-smokers would probably find the dishes too harsh, he offered two suggestions: “They can either take up smoking or try a heavy red wine like a good Chianti.”
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       I wanted to talk to Assaf further, but I had more food to eat on someone else’s dime. Next stop, 55 Wall, the restaurant at the way-too-fashionable-for-people-like-me Regent Wall Street hotel. Chef Jason Avery wraps halibut in a tobacco leaf overnight before smoking it (the fish, not the tobacco) lightly. This was one hell of a halibut! I didn’t cough once!
       Avery swears his “smoked” fish is on the menu to stay, but other chefs who’ve used tobacco consider it a novelty that will fade as fast as Mayor Bloomberg’s approval rating.
       “It’s just a fad,” said Waldy Malouf, chef at Beacon, which briefly served a tobacco-wrapped bass. “And I’m resisting that fad.” Indeed, Malouf’s new cookbook—humbly titled, “High Heat: Grilling and Roasting Year-Round with Master Chef Waldy Malouf”—has not a single recipe that would satisfy the Marlboro Man (unless he’s jonesing for “Loin of Pork with Apples and Bitter Chocolate”).
       “The bottom line,” Malouf said, “is I’d rather smoke it than eat it.”
       But Malouf is a food professional. Of course he wouldn’t want to desecrate his outstanding prime beef (which I’ve also sampled, thanks to the Journalist-Public Relations Complex that runs New York), so I called the University of Georgia to speak to a world-renowned agronomist who has spent most of his life studying tobacco. (“World-renowned agronomist”? Believe me, these guys could be the celebrities of the 21st century if US Weekly would only leave Tobey Maguire alone for a week.)
       Despite his love of the tobacco plant (did you know it’s a great source of protein? Neither did I), Professor J. Michael Moore was stunned to hear that New Yorkers were eating it. “I can’t imagine that tobacco would improve the flavor of anything,” he said. “But people do weird things everywhere, especially in New York.”
       Instead of devising recipes, Moore is working on a much bigger use for tobacco: using the cancerous weed to prevent rust buildup on metals. As we say here in New York, “Mmm-mmm good!”
       

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post. His website is at www.gersh.tv
       
       © 2003 Newsweek, Inc.
       
       
   
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