Deme Lomas is a slender 35-year-old Catalonian with luminescent blue-gray eyes and slick hair. Just before the dinner rush on a recent weekday afternoon, he cuts a small heap of thymus glands into bite-size pieces and drops them into boiling water. After five minutes, when they're about half-done, he pulls them out and plunges them into an ice-filled tub.
"That's it," Lomas proclaims to his servers. "Remember: Everything here is simple."
This is Arson, a 44-seater on NE Second Avenue in the heart of downtown Miami. Opening the place is a dicey move for Lomas, who was recently named a semifinalist for a James Beard Award. He and partners Adam Hughes and Karina Iglesias opened the smaller, nearby Spanish spot Niu Kitchen in mid-2014. It was a fast hit with a combination of simple Spanish fare and creative dishes such as cold tomato soup with mustard ice cream.
Lomas says he hopes to pivot away from Spanish techniques and ingredients. Hints of Asia and South America dot his one-page menu, which includes about 20 dishes.
Still, Lomas can't completely turn his back on the cuisine of Barcelona, where he was born to Andalusian parents and raised. Each day, his mother would lay out lunch that often included peppery gazpachos and a bounty of Spain's famed canned seafood, such as mussels, cockles, and meaty white tuna packed in olive oil. Sundays, she would prepare
Lomas began cooking at the age of 16 in a banquet hall. "I told my father I wanted a motorcycle. He said, 'Get a job,'" Lomas laughs. He spent the next four years bouncing around restaurants in Barcelona and taking cooking courses to refine his skills. About ten years ago, he began working in the kitchen of a Mediterranean restaurant called
"Everything came from the beach," he says. "Our guys woke up at 4 a.m. and brought us whatever they caught. I'd worked with seafood before, but this was the place where I started loving it."
About four years ago, he visited Miami on vacation and decided to stay. "I needed a visa, so I had to find a job," Lomas explains. He spent about a week at a catering company before landing work at Sunset Harbour's Barceloneta, where he spent two years before opening Niu Kitchen.
In doing so, he helped breathe new life into a Miami Spanish dining scene that has long been filled out by very reliable, traditional options such as Xixón and Las Tapas de Rosa.
As Lomas continues fleshing out Arson's menu and trying to find a new voice in a new space, his Spanish accent remains. On one day, he offers a special of
Another day, a purveyor, who often foists obscure cuts upon Lomas, drops off a pack of merguez sausages that leave the chef puzzled. "I don't know what to do with this," he says. "Maybe a rice?" So he slices the smoky North African lamb links into oblong coins and then pops them into the Josper oven to crisp.
For another dish, he mixes half-cooked bomba rice, a short-grain variety similar to Valencia, with the chili-spiked sofrito he calls salsa de
His octopus, another capitulation to his Spanish tendencies, is a delight. A single crisp and tender tentacle
How does he come up with ideas? "Sometimes it's late at night after service when I'm smoking a cigarette," Lomas says. "Sometimes it happens when I'm standing in the pantry. I'll even wake up in the middle of the night with an idea." The last scenario, he adds, is how Niu's tomato soup and mustard ice cream were born.
At Arson, that process has yielded dishes such as Lomas' riff on pad thai, in which whole shrimp are roasted in the
A set of fat New England scallops forms the foundation of another dish that boasts Asian elements. This time, it's the delicate preparation in which the bivalves are warmed in a Japanese-style steaming technique that leaves them creamy, sweet, and just barely cooked. The oceanic dashi broth, made with dried bonito shavings and kelp that floods the plate, is a clever move that seasons them in a wash similar to their natural habitat.
Other dishes, such as duck presented two ways, seem to lack any geographical anchor. For one presentation, the bird's breast is salt-cured and then sliced paper-thin, resulting in intensely savory bursts of prosciutto flavor. Each bite should be taken with a cube of bread coated in honey mustard that provides an ingenious sweet-and-salty contrast. The same is found on the other half of the plate, where a fan of thick slices of roasted duck breast, supremely juicy after being basted in the bird's own savory fat, rest with tender cubes of apple and
As time passes, Lomas hopes to create or stumble upon more of these kinds of dishes to replace Arson's more Spanish-leaning plates, which are good but also run the risk of cannibalizing his nearby restaurant. He says he and his partners have plowed all the money they made at Niu into Arson and plan to plumb the unknown and see what works. It's a risk Miami chefs and restaurants don't often take, but one whose rewards could be great.
"It's scary," Lomas says, "but I think it's what I have to do."
104 NE Second Ave., Miami; 786-717-6711; arsonmiami.com. Monday through Thursday 6 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 p.m. to midnight.
New England warm scallops $16
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Whole shrimp with red curry cream $16
Spanish octopus $17
Duck two ways $23