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NY Restaurant Offers Dishes Flavored with Tobacco - 2003-06-14

In early May the City of New York enacted a health ordinance requiring restaurants and bars to ban cigarette or cigar smoking inside their premises. Supporters of the ordinance say it's a way to protect patrons and workers from the ill effects of second-hand smoke. But New Yorkers are always looking for loopholes. One gourmet Manhattan restaurant is now using tobacco as a spice in some of dishes.

It is Friday night at the posh Serafina Sandro Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan, and the usual elegant crowd has arrived for a gourmet meal. They chat, they flirt, they talk business. One thing they can't do in here is smoke, because city law now forbids it in restaurants.

"There is no way around the rule," says Vittorio Assaf, co-owner of the Serafina Sandro restaurant. "This is pretty serious."

Like most New York restaurateurs, he was concerned that the smoking ban would hurt business as smokers stayed home to cook and smoke rather than eat out and climb the walls of a restaurant, desperate for a cigarette. So Mr. Assaf and his master chef decided to augment their menu with food delicately flavored with tobacco.

"At the beginning, we tried to do it to express our solidarity with the smoker population of our clients," he said. "But then it became it really a matter of trying to perfect - inventing before, and perfecting now, the use of a new spice into the cuisine. I have to tell you that I gained 12 pounds in two months I started to try and try and try and try [different possibilities.] And finally we came up with a three-dish menu."

Including 'tobacco panna cotta,' homemade gnocchi dumplings, and Filet Mignon beef with 'Barolo and Liberty Golden Virginia Blend Number 580' tobacco.

"It's very difficult to cook with tobacco," admits Mr. Assaf. "However you have to think with tobacco like a spice, like an enhancement. like you think about sage, like you think about marjoram, like you think about oregano. And that's what tobacco is al about. We just extract the flavor from the tobacco with these [tobacco] leaves, and we use this base sauce to cook what we have on the menu. It's actually very interesting. Tobacco changes during the cooking process. It becomes sweeter."

Leo Qulli, the head waiter here, explains the reaction among patrons who expect only more traditional fare.

"At first, it's weird for them just to think about it," he explains. "And when they try it, it's actually very good. It leaves a little bit of a taste of tobacco in your throat, like an aftertaste. I think it's a good idea. They don't have to go off every two minutes to go out and smoke."

It sounds pretty good to Patrick Kremmer, a longtime customer and a heavy smoker. He just ordered the tobacco-flavored gnocchi.

AP: Now why did you order Tobacco gnocchi?

PK: "For one thing, I can't smoke in here."

AP: Does it actually help solve the craving?

PK: "I honestly have no idea, but if it's anything like drinking tea, then it definitely will."

AP: Do you expect tobacco to have a similar flavor when eaten as it does when smoked?

PK: "Oh, absolutely not. But I expect it to have the aroma of fresh cut tobacco. And there are few better smells in the world than fresh cut tobacco."

AP: [Do you] think it'll ever take off as a spice?

PK: "We're going to find out the hard way!"

Not everyone is so daring. This lady and gentleman are perfectly happy with fresh seafood and wine.

LADY: "I never smoked so I would never order anything like that. I can't imagine I would want to eat tobacco. I'd rather smoke tobacco if I was a smoker. I would not want to eat it."

AP: How about you?

MAN: "Rather than see tobacco, I'd prefer to see cannabis [marijuana] added to the various dishes. Cannabis is something that makes you feel really good!"

Which raises the question of health risks. Is there a danger of cancer from eating tobacco-enhanced foods? Vittorio Assaf says that the doctors with whom he consulted said that these recipes pose no health risk, at least none when compared with cigarette smoking or chewing tobacco.

"A smoker or tobacco chewer actually chews a quantity of tobacco that is in the range of a half an ounce to an ounce [14-28 grams] of tobacco every time they chew tobacco," he explains. "You keep it in your mouth for an extended period of time. When you eat a dish made with tobacco in our restaurant, What we do is sprinkle, just as a decoration at the end, at most half a gram of tobacco per dish."

Enough talk! Mr. Assaf wants me to try his chef's homemade grappa, a potent homemade liqueur in which high quality tobacco leaves have been soaking for many days. He swirls the muddy looking liquid inside a huge glass jar and pours us each a dose.

VA: "This is the grappa that he infuses with tobacco. These are the actual tobacco leaves that they are infusing the grappa. Try to smell it so you know what it's all about."

AP: Wow!

VA: " It's very good. That's the grappa. 'Prego!' "

With my head whirling from the strong drink, and the taste of tobacco on my tongue for the first time in years, I'm in the mood for some more adventure. I wonder what non-filtered mentholated Filet Mignon tastes like.