Wednesday, July 9, 2014

first thoughts: Niu Kitchen - Downtown Miami

About a month ago I stumbled across a short blurb on Eater for a "new Catalan-inspired eatery" that had opened in downtown Miami: Niu Kitchen. "A little intriguing," I said. Then several good reports came back from folks who had visited. A couple weekends ago, I finally made made it in to see for myself.

(You can see all my pictures in this Niu Kitchen flickr set).

Niu Kitchen turns out to be a shoebox-sized restaurant squeezed into a small space in a central but nondescript stretch of downtown Miami, a block south of the Miami-Dade College campus. Seating maybe twenty five, it was clearly decorated on a tight budget but succeeds in feeling both homey and contemporary, with its reclaimed wood paneled walls and exposed bulbs hanging from the ceiling.

It also turns out to not just be "Catalan-inspired," but the actual real deal. Chef Deme Lomas was a chef in Barcelona (I believe this is the place) before making his way to Miami, where he first found work as a line cook at Barceloneta, then joined Niu Kitchen. His menu mixes traditional Catalan dishes like trinxat ($10), a potato and cabbage pancake bearing an uncanny similarity to the classic English "bubble and squeak," topped here with butifarra sausage and pancetta, with more extemporaneous items like his gamba tartare ($13), a mince of translucent, sweet shrimp over diced tomatoes and confited potatoes, presented with the shrimp's head so you can squeeze its juices onto the dish.

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A cold tomato soup with mustard ice cream and basil oil ($6) is one of those things that's either going to be fantastic or a train wreck. It was the former, with a delicately textured but full-flavored broth (more of a tomato water than a gazpacho) given an electric charge from that mustard ice cream. It was a great summer dish.

Paleta ibérica ($12) is the poor man's jamón ibérico, cut from the shoulder instead of the leg but with about 90% of the flavor. The accompanying pa amb tomaquet (the Catalan iteration of pan con tomate) was textbook: crusty toasted bread, with a perfect balance of tomato, salt and olive oil (i.e., a heavy hand with the olive oil). The "Ous" ($14) buried a runny poached egg under a veil of fluffy potato foam topped with crispy jamón serrano and black truffle shavings – a dish similar to the "Huevos Bulla" served at Bulla Gastrobar in Coral Gables.

There are only a few desserts to choose from, and we passed up the classic Catalan combination of chocolate, olive oil and salt to instead try the mató ($5) – a creamy fresh cheese (similar to cottage cheese, if the truth be known) served over a sweet eggplant jam, topped with toasted hazelnuts and a generous drizzle of honey. Another unlikely sounding combination; another success.

It's a very tight menu: probably less than twenty items total, which includes a few meat and cheese plate type things. And calling them "tapas" is not quite right, as these plates are generally a bit more substantial than that. You probably only need two per person to make a meal (all right, maybe one more to share), though only a couple of them – a fish of the day, and a steak – are truly entrée sized. And I've noted all the prices here because – at least until they figure it out – the place is a ridiculous bargain for the quality of the food and the environment in which it's served.

I didn't expect to see a familiar face as soon as we walked in: Karina Iglesias, who served our family at the bar counter of dearly departed Red Light more times than any of us could count. Iglesias is a co-owner, along with Chef Lomas and another partner, Alan Hughes. It even felt a bit like the good old times at Red Light as she cleared a space for us at a small ledge facing into the kitchen when there were no open tables in the restaurant's tiny dining room. Those tables are filled for a reason: they've got a good thing going on here.

Niu Kitchen
134 N.E. 2nd Avenue, Miami, Florida

Niu Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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