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Miami’s cocktail magic

Leo Holtzman, a Miami-born magician/bartender/chef, has big dreams of expanding Cocktail Collection, a small gastro-pub that used to operate above Tobacco Road, into a full-kitchen cocktail lounge. When the historic Tobacco Road closed down, Holtzman went on the lookout for an opportunity to open up again. This time, he wanted to do it bigger and better than ever. His idea is to pair perfectly crafted cocktails with a Japanese/American-inspired menu, and add a little bit of magic along the way.

The cocktail conjurer at work. (Courtesy of Leo Holtzman)
The cocktail conjurer at work. (Courtesy of Leo Holtzman)

Why do you want to open a restaurant in the A+E district?

I think it’s an exciting area, there’s a lot going on. A lot of people don’t realize how special it is. The area’s so new, there’s still a lot you a can do. My concept is more of a restro-bar concept, so you need more than an ordinary meeting place, you need a spot where a bunch of different people come to and gather and I think the neighborhood is the exact spot for that.

What experience do you have?

Well, I’ve done this before. I opened Cocktail Collection as a secret cocktail lounge above Tobacco Road, before it was torn down for development. Through that experience, I learned how to become a great host and how to adapt to something new every night with a different crowd. I also learned how to operate a restaurant and bar inside of something that was already in existence. I also worked at the SLS Hotel and the Dragon Lounge at Katsuya. I was running their bar and doing cocktails for them. Right now, I am the new corporate mixologist for The Palms Hotel in Miami Beach, I’m retraining all their bartenders and I just did two new releases. 

What was challenging about launching Cocktail Collection?

I opened Cocktail Collection in another restaurant, so we had to use their facilities. The Tobacco Road kitchen was pretty small, so to bring in a whole new menu didn’t make sense. That’s why I’m excited about this opportunity — I can expand it to what I imagined initially.

Also, Tobacco Road already had its own procedures. One of the stipulations was that I had to be careful not to steal business from Tobacco Road, so we had to be creative. For example, a big problem was that we couldn’t serve vodka sodas because Tobacco Road sold them and weren’t supposed to take sales from each other. The way we got around that was by having an alternative that was better than what they expected. So instead of a vodka soda, we tipped our hat to history and offered a Tom Collins. Vodka soda became popular in the 80’s when they replaced the lemon juice and sugar from the Tom Collins to cut back on calories. So we decided to bring it back but use very little sugar in the simple syrup, adding only 12 calories to the drink.

What inspires you?

It’s kind of a whirlwind. My first career was working as a professional magician. It’s one of the things I don’t want to highlight, because it’s better to stumble upon something you didn’t really expect to see. When you say “Come to my magic bar,” it feels kitchy. But when you experience it unexpectedly, it feels a little more fun. Anyway, while I was in magic school full time, I picked up a bartending gig. Then in three weeks I was the sort-of-general manager/sidekick. So instead of doing magic full-time, I opened a bar above Tobacco Road full-time. So, my job was to make sure that anytime anyone came to my place had the best night of their life.

What’s your menu going to be like?

I don’t plan on having a huge menu. In magic, there’s a six-trick rule — you should learn how to do six tricks perfectly. So we’re going to have a few items with the best option of each. In terms of cuisine, I want to revert to the traditional Osaka-style sushi. In this model, the chef decides everything for you. He takes a paintbrush and lightly puts soy sauce on top. Sushi is very delicate. The same with cocktails, just 1 mL makes the difference. So when you dip your sushi in soy sauce, you ruin it, you can’t taste the delicacy of the fish. I want to make sure you have the perfect amount so when you bite in and close your eyes, you can really taste the nuances. With that said, not everyone likes sushi, and it’s not the best bar food, so we’re going to do more Japanese/American food. Like, we’re going to do a remix on spicy tuna. We’re also gonna have a Japanese fried chicken sandwich with a panko-crusted micelle blue cheese aioli Caesar dressing. The idea is to make it Japanese-flavored, but American in execution.

What drink are you most excited about?

That’s hard. I would say the chile mule or the gardener’s margarita. The chile mule is our version of a Moscow mule. Instead of using ginger beer, we’d get muddled serrano peppers, then make a Hawaiian ginger puree. We’d use nitrogen soda water so the bubbles are tighter. The idea is to get the flavors you know but make it bolder. We do that by going backwards. We’re adding each ingredient individually to the cocktail. That’s our style.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever had?

That’s an impossible question. I always like to experience new things, so when you cook, nothing is the same. I consider cocktails like baking. It should be totally standardized. But for food, it’s all about taste. That being said, I think one of my favorite dishes is the Mcbelly, it’s like a bahn mi pork belly sandwich from Pubbelly. It has small but powerful flavor, which is the perfect combination.

And your worst meal?

That would have to be natto, which is fermented soybean. A close second is chapulines, which are pretty much baby grasshoppers. I tried it at Vagabond. You’ve got to try everything once, and it was interesting to see them, but it just wasn’t appealing to me.