From the moment Niu Kitchen opened in downtown Miami in 2014, it was clear that chef Deme Lomas and wine director Karina Iglesias had set out on a different path. The 28-seat space was tight, the wines were natural and unexpected, and the Catalonian-inspired food from Lomas’ native Spain somehow felt both completely original and familiarly comforting.
Iglesias and Lomas did it again three years later, when they and business partner Adam Hughes opened Arson a few doors down from Niu, using a slightly different formula. At Arson, the dining room had actual room, and Lomas created a menu — centered around a smoky Josper oven — that steered away from Niu’s traditionally Spanish flavors, with creative dishes that highlighted the cuisines of Asia, South America, and elsewhere.
Despite being neighbors and sharing DNA — during dinner services, Iglesias would dart between the Niu and Arson dining rooms to open wines and check on guests — the two restaurants maintained separate identities and provided uniquely different dining experiences.
The coronavirus pandemic prompted Lomas and Iglesias to temporarily change that dynamic. They merged Niu’s and Arson’s menus, calling the combo Niu x Arson, and are serving the mashup menu at Arson, where tables could be safely spaced apart, and sidewalk space is available. And they closed Niu to turn the space into Wine Medium, a natural-wine boutique curated by Iglesias, a pioneer of Miam’s natural-wine scene.
“I don’t know whether to answer the phone and say, ‘Thank you for calling Arson’ or ‘Niu,'” Lomas said. “And I’m serving oysters with soy sauce, rice vinegar and mayo [an Arson dish] next to dishes from a Catalonian restaurant. It’s totally weird. But I’d rather be weird than out of business.”
They’re also taking every opportunity they can to bring their food and wine to wherever people are. Wine Medium hosted pop-ups at Gramps in Wynwood, and Itamae in the Design District (“Just give me a sign, and I’ll sell my wines,” Iglesias says, joking about the low-tech portable setup she brings to those off-site sales). And Niu x Arson is serving the lead-off item in the 10-course Resy Drive-Thru on March 18 and 19: skewered shrimp with strawberry gazpacho, basil oil, and Madras curry powder.
Lomas is working seven days a week to keep Niu x Arson humming, and Iglesias’ efforts at Wine Medium allow them to keep paying rent at the Niu space. They say they’ll keep pushing — safely — as long as they can, because 2020 proved how unpredictable the restaurant business can be.
“For whatever reason, Miami is packed right now, and we are fortunate to be busy every night,” Lomas says. “But I don’t know when that will change, if the summer slow season will cool things down, so we have to make money while we can.”
But what comes next? This topic is a constant point of discussion for Iglesias, Lomas, and Hughes.
“The truth is we don’t know yet if we’re going to keep the combined Arson and Niu going, or if we will come up with a new concept, or if we’ll find a way to get Niu up and running again,” Iglesias says. “Niu is our first-born, our baby, so I think we’re all hoping to get it back to a restaurant somehow.”
It’s a restaurant that Miami is hoping to get back, too. Niu scooped up a three-star Miami Herald review upon its debut in 2014. Herald critic Victoria Pesce Elliott gushed over Lomas’ cooking — including his otherworldly “ous” dish of gently warmed, truffled eggs with crispy ibérico ham, one that remains a mainstay of the Niu x Arson menu, along with Iglesias’ vibey hospitality and “her unruffled, laid back demeanor.”
In a city full of celebrity-chef restaurants, a growing roster of outposts from New York restaurant groups, and 300-seaters in South Beach hotels, Niu — tiny, rambunctious, funky, and fiercely independent — has always felt refreshingly original. The front door that opens onto Northeast Second Avenue by Miami Dade College’s downtown campus could just as easily lead to a side street in Barcelona. Iglesias and Lomas made it look effortless to please everyday diners and critics alike — and become integral parts of the Miami food community, supporting other chefs through local events and nonprofit work.
They took that momentum, coupled with Lomas’ back-to-back placements in 2016 and 2017 on the James Beard semifinalist list for best chef in the South, to open Arson on the same block as Niu in 2017. Lomas built the menu around a charcoal-fueled Josper oven — a grill-oven combo from Spain that imparts an assertively smoky flavor onto everything it cooks. He took his foundations in Spanish cuisine and put them through worldly adventures in the Josper: a riff on Argentina’s comforting baked-cheese dish, provoleta, with Basque chistorra sausage, or those charbroiled oysters with soy and rice vinegar.
Iglesias brought to Arson her front-of-house persona, including an almost preternatural ability to guide customers to wine they’ll love. Her mark remains on the Niu x Arson wine list, even though she has stepped away from daily hosting duties to focus on the retail shop for now. A Catalonian pet-nat, Clos Lentiscus Gentlemant, from the sumoll grape native to that region, highlights the list’s tight selection of sparkling wines, and skin-contact selections include orange choices from Slovenia (Sumenjak’s 2017 Alter), Italy (Vodopivec’s 2015 Origine), and France (the 2019 Lolita Mise en Bec).
Despite the uncertainties that surround their current situation, Lomas says he feels “lucky” to be in Florida, where restaurants have been able to resume indoor operations. Barcelona, where he is from and where he keeps up with chef friends, eased limitations on dining hours in March, but restaurants still cannot have in-person dining after 5 p.m.
Iglesias, who was born in Argentina and lived part of her life in Spain, says she also feels grateful to have been able to make it into 2021 with her health intact and her businesses holding on. A single parent, Iglesias watched her daughter, who virtually grew up in Niu’s dining room, graduate from high school last spring and land a job at Itamae while prepping for college. “I feel bad that Lola didn’t get to have a prom or a proper graduation,” Iglesias says, “but she is happy, she is making her own money, and she was offered scholarships to different places.”
And several of the furloughed employees that Arson and Niu have been able to bring back since last year have picked up second jobs — selling ceviche, working construction, cleaning houses — to make ends meet. They may not be sure what’s coming next, but for now, they’re hustling not only to bring home a paycheck but to keep giving Miami diners the food, wine, and experience that ignited a spark in the city when Iglesias, Lomas, and Hughes opened Niu in 2014.
“We’re all happy to be working, and we know we are lucky to be open because so many restaurants have closed,” Lomas says. “I see light at the end of the tunnel.”
Evan S. Benn is director of special projects at The Philadelphia Inquirer; former food editor of The Miami Herald, and editor in chief of its lifestyle magazine, Indulge. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter. Follow Resy, too.