Downtown Miami, a stone's throw from tourist trap Bayside, seems like the least likely of places to house the chic and quiet Catalonian venue NIU Kitchen. At night, this part of NE Second Ave. has a sleepy, nondescript feel, and we almost walk passed the glass doors. Thank the food gods that we didn't.
Inside, the space is long and narrow, the interior rustic and stylized with high ceilings and low level lights (look closely and you'll notice books nailed to the ceiling). One wall is covered with found and refurbished wood, the other an oversized chalkboard. At the back overlooking it all is the kitchen, nestled behind a tiny wooden bar.
Co-owners Karina Iglesias, Deme Lomas, and Adam Hughes officially opened NIU Kitchen two weeks ago, relying primarily on word-of-mouth. When asked to describe the menu, Lomas says, "It's Spanish, but at the same time, not really. We don't have any fried food, and most of our dishes are cooked in the oven or grilled."
Choices are printed on a thick menu that lets us know we're "in the heart of downtown Miami" or "between Dali's moustache and Gaudi's Sagrada Familia." Food is sectioned into Per Comencar, "to start with," Per Compartir, "to share," Quelcom Mes, "something else," and the simple, Dolc, or "sweet."
We begin with a twist on a classic: Cold tomato soup ($6). A bowl appears, but instead of soup there's a ball of mustard "ice cream" sprinkled with micro greens. Iglesias holds out a sauce boat and slowly pours in the tomato and basil oil soup. Before she leaves, she explains the inspiration behind NIU.
"I wanted to open a restaurant for my daughter, really," Iglesias said. "And I picked this neighborhood because I thought it would be the next up-and-coming place, and it's much cheaper than Wynwood."
With that she takes a small bow and leaves us to figure out the rest. Bite the ball first and then sip the soup? Bad idea. Taken alone, the mustard overpowers the liquid. After mixing the mustard together with the soup, though, the combination of cold and cool, spicy and sweet, punctuaded with an occasional crunch of croutons, rivals some of the best Spanish gazpachos.
Next up is a traditional Catalan dish, Ous-egg ($14), per Iglesias' recommendation. Two poached eggs are served in a simple white bowl with a side of fresh baguette. Truffled potato foam creates a soft moat around two perfectly cooked eggs topped with crunchy Jamón Iberico flakes and black truffle shavings. A deceivingly simple-looking dish, the flavors are savory, sharp, and memorable. We could eat this for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Not particularly traditional, the Galtes de porc ($13), or pork cheeks, feel like the logical step up from jamón. The cheeks are melt-in-your-mouth tender, with a sweet and aromatic glaze. Much of the pork's flavor comes from the braise, a mix of vegetable and bone stock, plus four bottles of Tempranillo, left together for 13 hours. Yes, the potato foam is redundant, but damn if we didn't want to get another order of those cheeks.
After spending time on land, we wander over to the beach, closer the waters of Barcelona. The mussels ($12.50) are simmered in garlic and tomato sofregit sauce, as well as Verdejo wine from the Rueda region of Spain. As is often the case with seafood, the sauce makes the dish, and this one is perfect for dipping.
Before we order dessert, Barcelona-born chef Deme Lomas stops by our table and describes the concept behind NIU's food. "Everything is very fresh," he says. "We don't have a fryer here, and if we run out of anything, that's fine. It's better."
He recommends we try the traditional Catalan dessert of mató ($5) to round out our evening. Mató refers to a fresh Catalan cheese made from goat's milk, normally drizzled with honey. In Lomas' version, the cheese sits atop sweet eggplant jam, and is finished off with candied hazelnuts. The jam doesn't taste like eggplant, the cheese is similar to ricotta but less salty, and everything is soft yet chunky. Like a painting of melting clocks, it shouldn't make sense, but it does.
After we pay, Lomas smiles and asks, "What did you think of the dessert?" and before we can respond he says, "Kind of weird, no?"
Yes, some of the dishes at NIU are kind of weird, but rather than intimidate, they invite curiosity and a more open palate. When you leave NIU Kitchen, you leave wanting more.