On the list of restaurant dishes you may be afraid to try at home, those involving tableside fires are near the top: Bananas Foster, Baked Alaska, Cherries Jubilee.
But Deme Lomas, chef-partner of the new Arson Miami and its neighboring Spanish restaurant downtown, Niu Kitchen, is giving us a reason to ignite a flame in our home kitchens.
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The salt-baked whole fish that Lomas serves at Arson — its salt crust is finished with a shot of Pernod before being set ablaze — is so dramatic that it captures the gaze of every diner in the restaurant. And the flavor of the flaky, white-flesh dorade is so fresh, so reminiscent of being on the coast of the Mediterranean, that it begs to be tried at home.
Except for the fire-lighting. That part of the recipe is optional (but encouraged by Lomas).
A Little Show
“I wanted to make a typical salted fish that you would eat anywhere along the Mediterranean,” Lomas explained. “We added the anise aroma of Pernod, like the French do in their seafood stews. And since the name Arson comes from fire, it seemed logical to light the dorade on fire — and, of course, make a little show out of it.”
While the flames are mostly for show and the Pernod for olfactory amusement, the salt crust is responsible for the dish’s delicate flavor. Baking the fish in mound of salt seals in the steam that rises off the fish in the oven, and gently seasons it to the point of being lightly briny but not salty.
When it comes time to serve, you crack open the crust, push aside the salt and skin, and separate the fleshy filets from the bones. It’s easy enough to try at home and — even without the Pernod and the flames — sure to impress your date.
The salt-crusted dorade is the only dish that arrives to the table on fire at Arson, but everything at Lomas’ new downtown hotspot is dedicated to live-fire cooking. Almost the entire menu, from pastas to seafood to sauces, is cooked in a Josper oven, a Spanish-made grill that is powered by charcoal.
“The idea is to go back to one of the oldest cooking techniques in a time when most chefs are opting for more modern methods,” Lomas said. “Basically, we are returning to the origins of cooking.”
Arson Miami, 104 Northeast Second Avenue, Miami; 786-717-6711; arsonmiami.com.
Meet the Chef
“My name is Deme Lomas. I am 35 years old, and I am one of the three owners of Niu Kitchen and Arson Miami. I am also the chef of these restaurants.
“I was born in a small city near Barcelona and started to develop a curiosity for cooking at a very young age. When my mother would go out, I would be in the kitchen, making all sorts of little disasters.
“I studied jazz for several years but eventually abandoned it. I found that I could live off of cooking — but not music. I started working in different restaurants around Barcelona, learning as much as I could, and I became executive chef for a restaurant group there in 2008.
“It has been five years since I moved to the United States, three years since I started this project called Niu with my friends and now partners, and a little more than three months since we opened Arson.
“In 2015, I was nominated as a People’s Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine, and I have been recognized as a Best Chef: South nominee by the James Beard Foundation two years in a row.” — As told to Evan S. Benn
MEDITERRANEAN DORADE ‘A LA SAL’
2 pounds coarse salt
2 tablespoons whole black peppercorn
1 1/2 cups water
1 (1 1/2-2 pounds) whole dorade, gutted and scaled
1/4 cup Pernod
- Heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix the salt, pepper and water together in a large bowl.
- Coat the fish on both sides with the salt mixture, then place fish on a foil-lined baking sheet, covering it with more of the salt. Bake until salt becomes dry and crusty, about 20-25 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest 5-10 minutes.
- Pour Pernod over the salt crust, then light on fire with a long-stemmed lighter.
- Once the flames have died died, carefully crack open and remove the salt shell, then filet the fish and serve.
NOTES: If dorade is unavailable, branzino may be used instead. The step of pouring Pernod on the salt crust and lighting it aflame is optional.