If the all-glass entryway of NIU Kitchen allows a peek into the future of downtown Miami, then we’re in for an inventive time filled with superb flavors and a modern Spanish accent.
We are tightly packed into this slip of a space, but nobody seems to mind. Reclaimed wood slats on one wall and Edison bulbs hanging from the ceiling feather a reassuring nest as diners at eight tables crane their necks to examine every tantalizing tapas plate proffered by a small, efficient open kitchen.
There isn’t a trendy brussels sprout or shred of kale in sight. Instead, Barcelona-born chef/co-owner Deme Lomas (Barceloneta) creates traditional Catalan food with an updated twist. Yes, there are potatoes and eggs and chorizo, but these combinations challenge old assumptions with Dalí-like eccentricity.
The simple-sounding ous (egg) occupies a small crock comprised of two perfectly poached eggs, airy potato foam, slices of jamón Ibérico and musky gratings of summer black truffle. The runny, hot yolks turn the dish into a creamy, salty dream.
Llamàntol is a luxurious structure of lobster chunks, avocado and trout roe with a mashed soft-boiled egg that transforms into velvet on the tongue.
Instead of cold comfort, a cool tomato soup is a complex equation that blows gazpacho into the 21st century.
The starter arrives as a modern white bowl with a solitary dollop of mustard “ice cream” in the middle. The thin tomato soup, sweetly flavored with manchego-pesto and basil, is poured over the cold, grainy mustard from a white gravy boat. Breaking off bits of the gold dome into the soup adds icy-spicy slivers of sinus-opening flavor to each spoonful.
Be sure to ask for a side of toasted bread seasoned with olive oil and salt to soak up every drop.
Playful chemistry is part of the fun here. The grilled New York strip steak — one of only a few entrée-size portions — comes with a vinaigrette that co-owner Karina Iglesias brushes onto the meat with a rosemary twig. The rosemary, lit on fire at the table, is waved around like a shaman’s smoking torch.
Along with a thoughtful selection of new Spanish wines, the one-page food menu is deceptively brief, with affordable choices that lean toward the sea: fresh oysters and mussels, grilled scallops in garlic cream with sweet tomato jam, a lime-and-cucumber-specked wahoo tartare. A sprawling chalkboard suggests that each diner order two dishes for sharing.
Even the tiny desserts rise above the norm. A small jar of ricotta-like mató cheese is layered with eggplant jam, honey and caramelized hazelnuts as a surprising finish with just the right touch of sweetness.
The Argentine-born Iglesias, who worked front-of-house at downtown’s Soya e Pomodoro and the now-closed Red Light Little River in Belle Meade, keeps the 3-month-old eatery’s groovy party vibe with her unruffled, laid-back demeanor, supported by tunes that range from Édith Piaf to the Beatles. She keeps her cool even when she’s firmly shooing away the occasional skateboard dude and other characters drawn to NIU’s warmth like moths to a flame.
The rough-cut neighborhood just south of Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus is part of the place’s hidden allure. Tucked into the bottom of a historic 1922 building across from the new Loft 2 condo tower, NIU is part of a transition still in progress. It seats only about 40 people. Service can be slightly disorganized. The bathroom next to the kitchen feels like an airplane lavatory.
But it’s clear that Iglesias, Lomas and their business partner, Adam Hughes, are first-time restaurateurs who are hungry to distinguish themselves and their neighborhood.
“I believe in this side of Miami,” Iglesias says.
With NIU on its side, so do we.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense.