At Estefan Kitchen in the Design District, a trio of musicians kicks things up a notch as soon as the clock strikes 9. A young woman in barely there shorts and her father dance salsa beautifully, while next to them a gentleman in his late 80s starts doing the twist. He gets down so low that for a moment it's unclear whether he'll make it back up — but sure enough he does, which earns him a round of applause. Here, it's business as usual when waiters and bartenders periodically break out in song. The real treat arrives when an elderly man stands and begins belting out opera, and, naturally, the room goes wild.
Music royalty and hospitality veterans Gloria and Emilio Estefan envisioned a festive place that would combine their love of food and music, and their latest concept does just that. The couple owns Cuban restaurants throughout Florida, including Ocean Drive's Lario's on the Beach. Indeed, Estefan Kitchen is in some ways a more upscale version.
This new restaurant, which opened in early March, is located in the Design District's Palm Court, surrounded by some of the world's most exclusive retailers. The eatery boasts a spacious dining room and two large U-shaped bars (one indoor and one outdoor), while next door is the casual grab-and-go Estefan Café. The don of the Design District, Craig Robins, beckoned the Estefans more than a year ago to open a high-end Cuban concept in the neighborhood, and they eagerly obliged. Since early April, Emilio has produced a free outdoor concert series in Palm Court on Fridays.
The menu is a combination of Gloria's grandmothers' traditional Cuban recipes and more modern dishes to please the calorie-conscious and gluten-free crowd. Chef Odell Torres is a native of Havana and has been at the helm of all the Estefans' food concepts since 2013. Torres says what sets this restaurant apart from other Cuban eateries is that everything is handmade onsite and that only the freshest ingredients are used.
Torres won an award at Croquetapalooza in 2015 for his signature croquetas, and the ones offered at Estefan Kitchen are swoon-worthy. Stuffed with either Serrano ham or chicken, they come with a lovely balsamic guava reduction on the side — and simply dissolve in your mouth.
The kitchen's baked empanadas, however, are merely OK. On the other hand, an order of lechón crispy moros is not to be missed. Described by Torres as the perfect Cuban bite, the small plate offers a crisp-on-the-outside, creamy-on-the-inside cake composed of white rice and black beans. On top lies tender shredded pork enhanced with a bright cilantro dressing and a smidgen of honey and truffle oil. Three come in an order. Good luck trying to eat just one.
Lechón flatbread: Roast pork, mozzarella cheese, organic honey, sweet plaintains, and truffle oil
Many of the same ingredients can be found in another sharable appetizer: lechón flatbread. Homemade dough is the base for melted mozzarella cheese, mojo-marinated pork, and sweet plantains. A drizzle of honey and truffle oil help round out the sweet and savory flatbread, which is yet another hit.
For something lighter, try a tower of cubed avocados, tomatoes, cucumbers, and red onions in a cilantro-lime vinaigrette. It's surprisingly filling and refreshing. There's also the option to add grilled shrimp, fish, chicken, or churrasco.
Every day during lunch and dinner, a piano player performs live. On weekend evenings, guests are treated to a musical ensemble. And no matter when you go, black-and-white zigzag floors and purple lights create a disco vibe. All of the furniture is white, and a back wall features a mosaic depicting Gloria Estefan. The decor is glamorous, yes, but modern, not quite.
Much like the appetizer selection, there is no shortage of main-course options. You can choose from several chicken, beef, and pork preparations, but our waitress highly recommended the seafood paella for two. Torres cooks the saffron rice in a Latin garlic sauce called criollo, and it's excellent on its own. That said, though seafood abounds in the $70 paella — including a generous amount of lobster — most of it on a recent visit was either overcooked or not particularly fresh-tasting. The lobster, scallops, and shrimp were too chewy, while the clams and mussels had an unpleasant fishy flavor.
Named for the Estefans' personal chef, Miriam's special arroz con pollo is better. Slow-braised chicken is marinated for 24 hours in a blend of spices and peppers and then served alongside rice, green peas, and sweet plantains. The chicken is a little too sweet, although good enough, but the fragrant rice and toothsome plantains steal the show.
When something seems off or crazy, Chef Torres says Cubans like to use the saying "arroz con mango," because rice and mango are two things that seemingly don't go together. In Cuban cuisine, however, there's a popular dessert called arroz con leche (rice pudding), so Torres decided to get playful and make a dessert called arroz con mango. As the name suggests, the dish is rice pudding wedged between a mango terrine and pieces of freshly diced mango. Perhaps they should do away with the popular saying, because rice pudding and mango are a nice combination. The dessert is refreshing and an excellent choice if you don't want something as sweet as flan or tres leches.
Service at Estefan Kitchen strikes the ideal balance between professional yet not overbearing. Overall, the dishes are sincere and deployed with care. The power couple's latest is a welcome addition to the Design District's burgeoning food scene, so dig up those dancing shoes and head over. Fun times await.
140 NE 39th St., #133, Miami; 786-843-3880. Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and midnight Friday and Saturday.
Baked empanada $6
Lechón crispy moros $12
Lechón flatbread $14
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Seafood paella for two $70
Miriam's special arroz con pollo $20
Arroz con mango $7