Deme Lomas has cooked in America long enough to know Americans love their barbecue.
It was the inspiration for his new downtown Miami grill-and-smoke restaurant, Arson. But here, he didn’t want to simply put his spin on basic ribs, brisket and chicken wings. Lomas wanted to apply the expertise that earned him back-to-back nominations for best chef in the South by the James Beard Foundation at his 3-year-old neighboring restaurant, Niu Kitchen.
To do that, he turned to his roots: He’s cooking all of the food in a Josper oven, a charcoal-fired oven/grill combo, which, like him, was born in Spain. Lomas, a Barcelona native, has been cooking on it for more than 20 years, so he decided to make it the centerpiece of the 4-month-old Arson, where the menu proudly proclaims, “We’re committed to flames.”
Every dish from the meats to the mashed potatoes is cooked in the Josper, with the exception of pasta and poached eggs featured in a pair of dishes. And they are served in a Spartan space with overhead lights that literally spotlight the food. It’s less backyard barbecue, more dressy date night.
This single-minded commitment to cooking over fire is both the restaurant’s strength and its limitation.
On a bustling Friday night, every seat at Arson was filled and smoke was in the air. White clouds billowed into the dining room every time one of the restaurant’s specialties, a salt-crusted dorado, was pulled from the grill, forcing the hostess to prop the door open throughout dinner. (Lomas said later the restaurant is working on installing a stronger smoke extractor.)
The energy at the young restaurant is palpable — and audible. With concrete floors, tiled walls and no sound absorption on the roof, it can get not just loud but ear-splitting. Hope that a table of six next to you hasn’t both been drinking and in the mood for song or you’ll spend dinner asking the wait staff to repeat themselves and leaning in to hear your dining companion inches away.
The staff is eager to recommend dishes from starters to larger plates, all intended to be shared, tapas-style, but nonetheless in gourmet portions. This restaurant may be inspired by American barbecues, but it’s not a BBQ joint to strap on the feedbag.
The dishes arrive one at a time, instead of several at once to pick and choose from in the tapas style, with plenty of time in between — at times too much. On one visit, a dinner of six of these dishes came out over the course of more than two hours. It’s like the Spanish to take their time at dinner, but the result here is a restaurant full of people who always look like they’re waiting for their food.
When dishes do arrive, they land with varying success from their Josper sauna. There is, quite possibly, no better cooked scallop than the ones Lomas chargrills here, topped with basil “caviar” (basil reduction “spherified” in a molecular gastronomy technique innovated at Barcelona’s El Bulli). They are fork tender and soaked tableside with a Japanese dashi broth to keep the grill lines crisp from the encounter with the grill.
The wait between dishes allows you to contemplate the balance of simplicity and skill in a dish like this, but also to overanalyze what the Josper did to the mushroom confit. The mushrooms, served mixed with asparagus and a poached egg you cut into tableside, had the unfortunate consistency of canned mushrooms. The spilling egg, instead of creating a creamy base, mixes with the mushroom and pale asparagus’ moisture to create what amounted to a broken sauce. We did not finish the plate as we waited for the next course to arrive.
It’s dishes like the spicy provoletta (a cheese aged 10 months), melted and mixed with petite diced chistorra sausages, that make the waits tolerable. It’s a crowd pleaser of a dish, served with crusty bread, that you and a dining partner will grudgingly share.
Meats, of course, are made for the grill. To wit: the Angus grass-fed skirt steak with a red-pepper-brightened chimichurri. The meat is cooked a perfect medium rare in the Josper. That made it a surprise when a flank steak on a previous visit ranged from medium well to rare and was undersalted.
Lomas shows his skill and the Josper’s flexibility with his Duck 2 Ways. In one, the duck is cured and served in bite-size slices, with grilled honey-mustard bread cubes in each bite. The grilled duck served next to it is crispy and charred outside, tender inside, with cubes of tart apple and an applesauce.
Same goes for the octopus, served in one long outstretched tentacle astride an anis foam and cubes (he loves cubes) of translucent green tomato gelée. It’s nicely charred on the outside though varying in tenderness inside, but the flavor is spot on.
If fire is the show at Arson, then the aforementioned dorado is the Flying Wallendas. The salt-crusted fish arrives tableside aflame in Pernod, imbuing the fish with its anise scent. Yet when it’s taken back to be filet, it returns like the star without her makeup, two lonely white filets on a white plate stripped of any drama. The fish is perfectly cooked, however, moist and aromatic, though at this point you would wish for a pair of sides to keep it company on your plate.
Those side dishes (which arrived separately and well into each dish) get the Josper treatment. The kitchen wraps potatoes in foil and leaves them in the Josper’s embers overnight, so in the morning, the resulting smoky potatoes, with just a kiss of cream and sprinkled with chives, are worth an asterisk on the menu. The grilled corn on the cob, echoing the American backyard barbecue, gets a brushing of black truffle oil; the corn is juicy and smoky though I’m not convinced the oil improves the dish.
If you’re curious to see what the Josper can do with dessert — and what Lomas can do with a refined touch — the holjadre is the answer. Arson’s Brazilian puff pastry is layered with mascarpone cheese and pear compote, with red wine gelatin — in cubes! With each element in a spoonful, they help form a decadent final bite.
Lomas is committed to playing with fire at Arson even if every dish so far isn’t a home run. No one will mistake his new experiment for an American barbecue joint, nor should they. Sparky’s Roadside Barbecue is down the block for that.
For the latest restaurant inspection reports, visit dine.miami.com
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.
Rating: ☆ ☆ 1/2 (Good)
Address: 104 NE Second Ave, Miami
Contact: ArsonMiami.com; 786-717-6711
Hours: 6-11 p.m., Monday-Thursday; until midnight Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Prices: Starters $11-$16; larger sharable plates $16-$39; desserts $9-$18; sides $4-$5.
FYI: A variety of wines available, with by-the-glass options starting at $10. Reservations suggested. All major credit cards. Street parking available on neighboring blocks; nearby garage.