With Arson, Deme Lomas, One of Miami's Favorite Spanish Chefs, Looks Toward Other Shores

Arson chef and co-owner Deme Lomas. See more photos from Arson in downtown Miami.
Arson chef and co-owner Deme Lomas. See more photos from Arson in downtown Miami.
Photo by CandaceWest.com

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.

Next he chops green onions and tomatoes, sprinkles them with minced garlic, and tosses the combination with sherry vinegar. Then he pulls out a half-dozen or so golf-ball-size smoked potatoes and mashes them with a fork as he pours on a stream of olive oil. Finally, he plucks the glands, also called sweetbreads, from the ice bath, sets them on a cast-iron platter, and thrusts them into a charcoal-filled Josper grill for about five minutes before arranging them on a plate with the potatoes, the vinaigrette, and a shower of olive oil and Maldon salt.

"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 conejo al ajillo, for which a whole rabbit would be fried in olive oil and then submerged in white wine and cooked with handfuls of garlic and chilies.

Whole shrimp with red curry cream
Whole shrimp with red curry cream
Photo by CandaceWest.com

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 Xalet de Montjuïc. He rose through the ranks, and the eatery's owner transferred him to a new seafood-focused restaurant. It was there Lomas began to appreciate the possibilities of working with pristine products.

"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 carabinero: a single hulking scarlet Spanish prawn served atop velvety off-white sauce that's like a thickened version of garlicky ajoblanco soup. At $23 for a single shrimp, the dish is a hard sell, and something he offers to please his own culinary urgings, Lomas says.

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.

Spanish octopus
Spanish octopus
Photo by CandaceWest.com

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 bruja and shoves it into the oven alongside the sausages. A few minutes later, when the rice is at a gurgling boil, he plops in a few spoonfuls of picada: a ubiquitous Spanish cooking condiment made with garlic, saffron, parsley, and hazelnuts. A few minutes more in the oven to let the rice finish cooking and it's all done. He arranges the sausage on the rice and layers on a few thin slices of onion. It's a clever dish, and the spiciness of his sofrito mingles well with the merguez's pungency, but it's quite similar to the rice he's long served at Niu, which is often filled out with small, sweet shrimp or squid.

His octopus, another capitulation to his Spanish tendencies, is a delight. A single crisp and tender tentacle arrives on a coal-black slate underlined by a star anise foam whose sweetness mirrors that of the cephalopod. The gentle spice intensifies the tomato flavor of the gel cubes that intersperse with tiny dots of a spicy aioli.

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 Josper and then rested atop a red curry cream fattened with whipped potatoes, onion, garlic, coconut milk, and fish sauce. A scattering of crushed peanuts, pickled shallots, and green onions re-creates the original dish's flavor contrasts and balances the sweet shrimp and spicy, decadent sauce.

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.

Duck two ways
Duck two ways
Photo by CandaceWest.com

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 dots of apple gel.

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."

Arson

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

Whole shrimp with red curry cream $16

Spanish octopus $17

Duck two ways $23

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Arson

104 NE Second Ave.
Miami, FL 33132

786-717-6711


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