Cuban food has come a long way, if Estefan Kitchen is any indication. Humble black beans, plantains and mojo marinade are rubbing elbows with the likes of Bulgari, Hublot, Gucci, Dior, Hermès and lots of other retail royalty in the transformed Design District’s Palm Court, the latest bastion of luxury shopping we possibly didn’t need.
Entertainment moguls Emilio and Gloria Estefan, also longtime restaurateurs (Larios on the Beach, Bongo’s Cuban Café) in Miami, opened their new Kitchen in March, joining a smaller Estefan Express at Miami International Airport. The fare, created by the Estefans and head corporate chef Odell Torres but paying loving tribute to the recipes of Gloria’s grandmother, is mostly straight-ahead Cuban with some upscale touches to fit the neighborhood. Branded products that pepper the menu are for sale, as are the house chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon.
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The dazzling space, bathed in ethereal blue lighting, features a massive curvilinear bar with white stools, grand columns, sparkly pendant lights and other snazzy touches. There is a bit of outdoor seating for a time of year other than this one. Prices absorb environmental inflation from the restaurant’s surroundings, although with most entrees in the mid-$20s, your check here will be easier to swallow than at most Design District spots. Torres’ food is generally strong, with flashes of excellence.
Estefan Enterprises is, of course, an entertainment venture, and at this restaurant you get a show. During the staff hiring period, Emilio participated, not just to assess a mixologist’s mojito or server’s grasp of the menu but also his or her singing voice. A festive piano player plinks away during most meals, and when you’re least expecting it, a spotlight will come on and the bartender will start crooning “Girl From Ipanema” or the waiter will belt out “Se Acabo.” The place is boisterous, energetic and a lot of fun, albeit consistently loud.
On to the food. Empanadas are filled with either roast chicken, beef or spinach, and with three to an order, you can try each. The guava balsamic reduction lent plenty of zest as a dipping sauce, but the chicken and beef pies were puny and not hot enough. The larger spinach empanada, bursting with spinach, was outstanding.
Our favorite starter was certainly chicharrones de pescado. These were hot, tender bites of skin-on red snapper, marinated in lime, parsley, cilantro and garlic, breaded and deep fried. A dipping sauce made from roasted red pepper, onion and plum tomato was perfect, although for the traditionalist, there’s homemade tartar sauce, as well.
The menu features a section of flatbreads, hipster for pizzas cut into little pieces. Our guava barbecue chicken flatbread did a nice spicy-sweet dance, with tender chicken marinated overnight in mojo and pan seared. The homemade bread is grilled first, then crisped in a turbo oven, served with mozzarella cheese, guava barbecue sauce and pickled onions. Tasty and good for the kids.
Criollo seafood soup is a show in itself. You’re first presented with a bowl of cooked mixed seafood; then a pitcher of rich and deeply flavored bisque-like soup is poured over it by the server. The luscious stock is flavored with grouper head, lobster bodies and crab, and the Creole sauce and licorice-y culantro are unmistakable in the background. There is a bit of cream, but the soup’s bulk comes from puréed potato, carrots and celery.
Avocado salad is a fresh-tasting foil to the rich bisque. Diced avocado is mixed with red onion, cucumber, tomato, white balsamic vinegar, cilantro and olive oil in a ring mold. The crunchy vegetables add textural variety to the buttery avocado, and the dressing is consistently applied and excellent.
Another light and fresh one is salmon tiradito, salmon marinated in lime and orange juice and thinly sliced, served with jalapeno slices, red onions, a jalapeno mayonnaise and malanga chips as the crackers.
The healthy side of Cuban cooking routine gets old, though, with our first entrée, chicken vaca frita, a lighter take on the traditional fried beef. Those of you who have over-grilled a chicken breast to the texture of Kevlar could have identified with the dry, blandish chicken we received. And this restaurant’s careful use of salt, generally welcome, struck out with our batch of black beans, which had virtually no flavor at all.
But the chef’s favorite entrée, lechon asado, is masterful. Boneless pork shoulder is marinated 24 hours in mojo sauce and roasted low and slow to a wonderfully tender texture with deep flavor and minimal grease. Moros y cristianos are savory and perfectly cooked, and a swirl of yuca mashed with garlic underneath it all completes a very satisfying plate.
Ribs are messy and worth it, with the house guava barbecue sauce slathered all over. Hot and soft fried yuca fries and homemade cole slaw complete the happy picnic.
Years ago, chef Torres first tasted wagyu beef at a fair, and it’s clear from the menu that he was hooked. Say you’ve never had wagyu beef palomilla style? Try it here, for it’s as tender and deeply flavored as you’ll ever find. Black beans and white rice are served on the side.
Wagyu returns with the braised short ribs, and they’re another hit. Simmered three hours in the oven with both red and white wine plus carrot, onion, celery, thyme, rosemary and oregano in a brown-sugar Creole sauce, they’re insanely tender, and the wagyu amps up the beefy flavor.
Torres even uses wagyu in his picadillo. Here, we tried it in a fusion mash-up called picadillo cannelloni pasta. Torres discovered this on a whim when he had some extra pasta on hand and created what he calls a Cuban lasagna. (The cannelloni is stuffed with picadillo, complete with raisins and olives, then doused with a creamy malanga sauce with onion, garlic and fontina cheese.) The dish has powerful flavor, although there is some “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”-level excess going on here. If you’re really hungry, get it.
To finish, the tres leches is a classic recipe. The homemade sponge cake with torched meringue is light and the creamy filling not overly sweet, cut with white rum and cinnamon. The pudín de pan bread pudding is made with medianoche bread, which adds a unique softness, and drizzled with a rum raisin reduction. A sweet end to a good show.
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If you go
Place: Estefan Kitchen
Rating: ☆ ☆ 1/2 (Good)
Address: 140 NE 39th St., Palm Court Suite 133, Miami
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Sudnay-Thursday, till midnight Friday-Saturday.
Prices: Starters, soups and salads $6-$18, entrees $22-$42 ($70 for paella for two); sides $4-$7; desserts $7
FYI: Noise level is high. Garage, street and valet parking available. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. Full bar. Corkage fee $25.