This Wednesday, the team behind downtown Miami's always-crowded Niu Kitchen will open the doors to its latest project, Arson (104 NE Second Ave., Miami). The restaurant's centerpiece will be the charcoal-burning grill/oven hybrid, the Josper.
A quick glimpse of the brief opening-day menu shows executive chef Deme Lomas offering cuisine with Italian and Asian ingredients and leanings. The first several days of operation (Monday through Thursday from 6 to 11 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 6 p.m. to midnight) will see New England scallops ($16) cooked slowly in the oven and served with a dashi broth and basil caviar. Roasted head-on shrimp ($16) will take a Thai turn to team up with a red curry cream, pickled shallots, and peanuts.
Along with partners Karina Iglesias and Adam Hughes, this new place solves two of Niu's longstanding problems: a shortage of seating that sometimes leaves skittish guests milling about downtown sidewalks at night, and the fact that, for years, Lomas' cooking has mostly concentrated on the Barcelona-style cuisine on which he was bred.
"Here, I'll do whatever I want," Lomas explains.
When it opened in mid-2014, Niu brought exciting, reasonably priced Catalan cuisine to an otherwise deserted downtown street. Lomas earned his bona fides in Barcelona seafood restaurants before moving to Miami and taking up at Barceloneta in Miami Beach's Sunset Harbour neighborhood. Iglesias, a veteran of Kris Wessel's long-shuttered Red Light Little River and downtown's Soya e Pomodoro, brought an extensive knowledge of Spanish and South American wines and the uncanny ability to manage both a bustling dining room and an ever-scruffier procession of homeless people ambling by the restaurant's front door.
After so many years wrapped up in Spanish and Catalan cuisine, Lomas says Arson is a return to simpler cooking. The Josper oven, a sort of reinvention of an ancient cooking vessel, has enjoyed renewed popularity in Spain and around the world recently as cooks revert to traditional techniques after years of gel-stippled plates. In Miami, the Josper can be found as the primary cooking vessel at Miami Beach's Klima.
"This is the way my mother used to cook for us," Lomas explains.
In preparation for the opening, Lomas has been experimenting with a variety of wood charcoals to see which offers the best combination of heat and flavor, which is, after all, the lure of charcoals. Most of them are of the Quebracho brand, a hardwood variety used in Spain and Latin America.
"There are different tree species — white, willow-leaf, red — and I'm trying them all," Lomas says.
In the coming weeks, the charcoal could be used to cook anything from ruby-red loins of tuna to bowls of pasta.
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"The good thing is you can cook really quick or slow," he explains. "If I close the door, the temperature falls. If I want to make mashed potatoes, I can close the door and leave potatoes to slow-cook over night."
Still, Lomas can't leave his Catalan roots too far behind. Duck cooked two ways ($23) will be served with apple textures, while Spanish octopus ($17) will come alongside a star anise foam, tomato gelatin, and a spicy aioli.