NIU Kitchen: Catalan Tapas Spot Shows Promise for Downtown Dining
Not long after sunset, downtown Miami is so deserted the click of a changing traffic light echoes like a gunshot. Once-bustling cafeterias and shops closed hours ago. In the inky darkness, steel shutters rattle in the wind.
billwisserphoto.com Co-owners Karina Iglesias and Deme Lomas.
But then you turn a corner and a cool-yellow glow pours onto the stained sidewalk. A subtle hum becomes boisterous chatter, clinking wine glasses, and clattering dishes. As you step in front of NIU Kitchen's plate-glass façade, you're sucked off the sidewalk and into a buzzing Barcelona-style tapas restaurant. The musical gurgle of emptying bottles of ruby-red tempranillo fills your ears. The nutty scent of toasting bread invades your senses along with the intoxicating aroma of fruity olive oil. After you settle into one of NIU's 26 seats, a warmth overtakes you, mostly thanks to co-owner Karina Iglesias, who with a devilish grin tops off your glass and then adds nothing to the check.
After working at the popular downtown Italian restaurant Soya e Pomodoro and Kris Wessel's beloved but now-closed Red Light Little River, Iglesias is a veteran of popular restaurants in shady neighborhoods. Tall with catlike eyes and a square jaw, she's also adept at gracefully chasing off the neighborhood bums.
Almost two years ago, she and Deme Lomas, a Barcelona native who worked at Pubbelly's Barceloneta in Miami Beach, met through a mutual friend. Along with partner Adam Hughes, the duo set out to find a space to showcase Lomas' take on Catalan cuisine, which is inspired by the region's Mediterranean flavors and wildly inventive techniques.
Without the bankroll for a hipper neighborhood, they settled on a cozy, pocket-size space downtown near Miami Dade College. "There's gentrification in Wynwood and the Design District," Iglesias says. "It's still beautiful there, but it would have been too much money for us."
A puzzle of weathered, reclaimed wooden planks lines both sides of the shoebox restaurant. Mismatched Edison light bulbs hang from long cords attached to the ceiling via open books. Diners often crane their necks to try to read the indecipherable print. A sprawling chalkboard commands you to "eat with your friends, devour your enemies."
At the far end of the space stands an impossibly small kitchen, where Lomas turns out about 20 dishes featuring trademark Catalan flavors and techniques. There's a bounty of seafood inspired by the hauls pulled from Spanish waters. He makes ample use of base -- ingredients such as picada -- a nutty, herbaceous blend of parsley and hazelnuts used to liven up sauces just before being served. Lomas applies a spoonful to short-grain rice that's toothsome and perfectly cooked in a flavorful combination of sofrito (the tomato and garlic sauce base common throughout the Spanish-speaking world), grated tomatoes, pork stock, juicy slices of sausage, and tender chunks of squid.