Ariel Leizgold talks about redefining hospitality, cocktail glass thieves and the 'fantastic' new tricks he's got up his tattooed sleeves
Ariel Leizgold has been at your service since he was 17 years old. What started off as a waitstaff position for an events company morphed into shaking and stirring behind the bar a year later, and he hasn't looked back since. But in the last two decades, a whole lot has changed for 38-year-old Leizgold, and he has spearheaded a whole lot of changes. The Beer Sheva born jack-of-all trades was raised by Ukranian immigrant doctors who enrolled him in everything from basketball to piano and ballet throughout his adolescence. After serving in an intelligence unit in the Israeli army, an experience he describes as being "very proud of," and one that he still serves in the reserves for today, he went on to Tel Aviv University and the IDC for stints in political science and business management, but eventually understood that his calling did not include sitting behind a desk studying for exams.
For the past decade plus, his mission has been to deconstruct and reposition the hospitality industry in Israel – redefining how people experience it in an unparalleled way. Through his hotspot bars, 223, Bellboy, Butler, restaurant Hotel de Ville, and his Duckface catering company, the thrill of the craft is just the beginning for him, and his fervor for the beautiful, the off-kilter and the far-fetched are all part of his specific brand of magic. Not only has he won Time Out's 'Bartender of the Year' twice, he has been a finalist for the National Competition of the International Bartenders Association numerous times and was crowned the National Champion, Global World Class Bartender of the Year in the World Class Bartender's selection, one of the most honorable awards for bartending across the world.
But Leizgold has long been shying away from the raucous "nightlife" aspects that typically go hand-in-mouth with his profession. Ready for the day's happenings bright and early, Leizgold starts checking off his list of to-dos at 4:50 a.m., including training for a marathon and procuring antique 19th century sconces. His latest ventures, aside from the year old Hotel de Ville and Fantastic, which opens tonight just in time for Purim's all-out debauchery, have transitioned into decidedly more academic territory, including lectures and a Masterclass held in over 40 countries world-wide on how story-telling is an imperative aspect of the hospitality industry.
Leizgold's inspiration is rooted in envisioning a fantasy world, taking people by the hand, and leading them through it – from start to finish. As is the case with his latest foray into the rooms of his imagination, Fantastic is a collaborative force of elements and industry professionals at the top of their game, including interior designer Iona Eliasi and costume and atmosphere consultant Yasmin Wollek. Walking into Fantastic's reception "green room", filled with hanging plants, botanical wallpaper, and floor-to-ceiling, lush green velvet curtains with arched windows leading out to a glass structured patio, it feels as if you are in a living, breathing terrarium. That is just the start. Head up the regal second floor staircase and stumble through the darkly-lit hallway of clanging bells and clocks, as if you are in a porthole to another world - and on the other end, this other world is summoned in a ballroom, complete with a tastefully blended décor pulling from 19th century Victorian accoutrements and whisps of gothic Art Deco. An excess of ornaments and decorative arts, including whimsically dark portraits of animals by Irina Aizen set in gilded frames, rich purple and fuschia tones, mirrored ceilings and a fitting grand piano, bid patrons to slink into one of the plush cushions, loveseats or lavish tables prepped for dining.
It is in the ballroom that 37 signature cocktails are served – each one infused with playful eccentricities and Leizgold's distinct aura of story-telling, divided under strategic categories like 'Boozy, Old School and Vintage', 'Experimental Complex and Unusual', and 'Sweet, Sour and Herbal', plus options for massive punch bowls for sharing between three to five guests. The drinking vessels are specifically crafted and laden with metaphors, storybook references and/or sexually-charged innuendos; this is a place of wonder – but the fairytale façade can twist and turn into the darker, adult realms of abstractions at the drop of a hat – or in this case – the order of a drink.
The unexpected cocktails, both for their thoughtfully exotic ingredients and their presentation, are exclusively designed by Mister Fantastic. From ceramic bunnies reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland to a monstrous green fist seemingly dismembered from the Hulk himself to a white ceramic skull topped with a cotton candy shock of hair, flecked with actual maggots (Uncle Fester is his name), the cocktails are winning on all fronts and the actual vessels are for sale (so you don't have to hijack them in your clutch.) Yes, the adept Leizgold has even taken that into consideration.
Both the Ballroom and the Tea Room have separate dining menus, helmed by chef Idit Fedida, who previously worked in a range of some of Tel Aviv's most prominent restaurants, including Mul Yam, 2C, Pronto and Catit, where she served as the executive chef. Fedida and Leizgold are a striking match when it comes to colliding their two wild worlds of fanciful cocktails and cuisine. Fedida's precise, flavorful offerings of ice cold oysters dashed with Mignonette and Vermouth, crisp octopus legs curled atop a seemingly hyper-color pink puree of red cabbage glaze, yellowtail sashimi in citrus bitters, goose breast in cherry, cocoa, radish gratin and black pepper chantilly, and a rich cheese platter spiced with mustard and wine syrup effortlessly complement Leizgold's absurdly decadent concoctions like the Bloody Sarah, brimming with spicy bacon, black garlic vodka, sherry vinegar, fresh pomegranate juice, Colman's Mustard, wasabi, truffle oil, lemon juice, and rosemary; the Uncle Fester, filled with agave syrup, lime juice, Mescal leaf, pineapple juice, Chile Liqueur, Smoked Cholula Chilly, creamed Mole Cordial sauce and coconut milk; or the Sho Shogi, a blend of rice syrup, lime juice, Kinkanju Shochu, white chocolate, Beni Kikusui Choya and matcha foam.
"We're here to introduce the unexpected and the avant-garde," says Leizgold. "Today, everybody is a 'foodie.' The culinary and nightlife scenes are about escapism, lifestyle, status - putting people in an alternate reality." This extravagant Rabbit Hole awaits.
Fantastic, 1 Tsidon St, Tel Aviv (03-5164700) facebook.com/pg/Fantastictelaviv