Stories / Awards, Interviews

Interview with the Bar at the NoMad Hotel’s Leo Robitschek

Elena North-Kelly

Elena North-Kelly

April 16, 2014


Leo Robitschek of the Bar at the NoMad Hotel 

Step into the Bar at the NoMad Hotel, and you’ll be instantly transported to a time when New York City hotel bars were the pinnacle of glamour and mastery of craft. The 24-foot-long mahogany bar, leather chairs, and towering shelves of backlit Art Deco–era tomes evoke a timeless elegance, while proprietary cocktails are prepared using modern techniques and seasonal ingredients. Below, the Outstanding Bar Program Award nominee’s beverage director Leo Robitschek tells us about his ultimate food and drink pairing, how the impressive beverage menu is curated, and his favorite local haunts. 

JBF: How does the NoMad bar program differ from your first venture at Eleven Madison Park?

Leo Robitschek:​ The NoMad was our chance to take what we did at EMP and apply it to a larger, looser setting, while taking inspiration from the great hotel bars of the late 18th century. We have a larger selection of cocktails at the NoMad and execute them in high volume, while at Eleven Madison Park we explore innovative techniques and presentations that are best executed on a smaller scale. At EMP, we've played with various clarification and carbonation methods, and we get to collaborate with the kitchen more directly with our seasonal kitchen cocktails. At NoMad, on the other hand, we let the neighborhood speak to us!

JBF: How does New York City itself influence your menu?

LR: The city’s rich and vibrant history is a major influencer in our program. When coming up with the cocktails for the NoMad's opening menu, I looked for inspiration in the history of the neighborhood. It was one of the first times that I came up with cocktail names before actually coming up with the cocktails themselves. We’re also influenced by New York’s distinct four seasons and the ingredients that they produce.

JBF: What’s your favorite cocktail on the current menu, and why?

LR: I love the North Sea Oil. It’s aged Aquavit, Islay Scotch, Cocchi Americano, and Triple Sec with a grapefruit twist. It’s a simple, four-ingredient cocktail that combines unlikely ingredients that actually work well together. The drink is pleasantly smoky with hints of fennel and orange.

JBF: Can you tell us about any other surprising ingredients that you often use in cocktails?

LR: I like black pepper. It can be used as a garnish to add an extra dimension to cocktails or infused in a syrup to add a savory spice quality.

JBF: What do you think sets the Bar at the NoMad apart from other NYC hotel bars?

LR: The NoMad executes brilliantly. I am lucky to have an amazing wine, beer, coffee, and tea program in my arsenal. I always say that the kitchen is my biggest tool. Not many bars have the luxury of a walk-in refrigerator full of fresh, seasonal produce and a team of honed palates. I feel so lucky to have a kitchen and dining room team that’s excited about cocktails and always willing to help. There are some influences that come from our chef’s flavor combinations and choices of seasonal ingredients, but the biggest asset to me is their unending collaboration and willingness to lend a tool, share a technique, or help taste through our cocktails.

The Bar at the NoMad Hotel

JBF: We’re especially curious about what role food plays in your cocktail menu, given the culinary team behind the NoMad. Is there a drink and snack pairing that you particularly like?

LR: I am especially fond of our Cherry Cobbler cocktail and the fried chicken (only available in the library and bar area). The nutty and salty notes enhance the flavor combination while the drink’s acidity helps prepare the palate for another bite.

JBF: Is there a cocktail trend or ingredient that you wish would disappear?

LR: I actually believe that trends, good or bad, help the cocktail movement. Trends actually promote exploration and curiosity in cocktails. But, if you made me pick something, I would say low-calorie cocktails. I’d rather drink cocktails made with aromatized wines or other lower ABV ingredients versus sacrificing balance and flavor by using artificial sweeteners.

JBF: What’s the process like for adding a new cocktail to the menu?

LR: I have final say on the menu, but the changes are a team effort. I provide a menu template, and allow my bartenders to submit cocktails for the season. Each bartender will present cocktails, while we all sit down to critique and modify them.  In a perfect world, each bartender would have at least one drink on the menu, but it doesn’t always work out that way. I really enjoy seeing everyone’s creativity and palate develop from season to season. Once the menu is finished, we have a final tasting to ensure that all the drinks are balanced—and we also allow the drinks to sit throughout the meeting to see how they develop over time.

The Bar at the NoMad Hotel

JBF: What's your go-to drink when you're relaxing at home?

LR: Probably a bottle of Equipo Navazos La Bota de Manzanilla or some sort of whiskey neat. If I get inspired, I might make a Negroni or Manhattan.

JBF: What’s your dream culinary or mixology travel destination, and why?

LR: I’m excited to go to Japan. I love their dedication to quality, precision, and perfection.

JBF: What’s your current favorite place to eat or drink out in New York City? 

LR: Ugh, this is hard! I would never turn down a 2:00 A.M. Sushi Seki omakase. And I often find myself at Mayahuel, Terroir, or Death + Company.

JBF: If you could make a drink for anyone, who would it be and what would you make?

LR: Probably Dorothy Parker or Hemingway. I would keep Mrs. Parker’s martinis flowing while shaking up Ernest’s daiquiris.

Elena North-Kelly is associate editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.