Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s new restaurant celebrates their Cuban roots

Executive Chef Odell TorresIt’s a Saturday evening, around 9 p.m. in Miami’s Design District. Streets are lit and luxury stores, such as Tom Ford and Dior, are still glimmering from a day’s worth of shopping. Inside them, clerks can be seen preparing for the next day, dressing mannequins and organizing couture.

Toward Palm Court, the main square, a subtle beat of music can be heard. Behind the geodesic dome, a white enclave illuminated in blue and purple hues exudes life into the otherwise quiet outdoor shopping mall.

The Design District’s newest restaurant, Estefan Kitchen, is now open. Created by Gloria and Emilio Estefan, and specializing in fine Cuban fare, the restaurant pays homage to its creators’ heritage and their love for Miami.

“It’s all about Miami,” Emilio says. “We want to bring a lot of people together, and that’s what Miami does. When you go into our kitchen, we have people from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and Jewish people and Italians. That’s who comes to eat here, too. We want to bring the culture of Miami to our restaurant.”

For Gloria, it’s more personal. Food can be traced back generations in her family as her grandmother owned a food-service business and her grandfather was a chef for former Cuban presidents. “I grew up in the kitchen with them,” she says. “It’s naturally in my family. My grandma’s dream was to own a restaurant. This would have been it for her.”

paella_7260Unlike traditional restaurants, Estefan Kitchen marries a menu of traditional family recipes with a singing and dancing staff and ceaseless live music. At any given moment, a server might deliver a plate of baked empanadas showered in guava barbecue sauce and then leap to the bar to sing a rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema.”

“In Miami, oddly enough, there’s not a lot of places that offer live music,” Gloria says. “It’s crazy, because live music is necessary and fun. We’re hoping little by little that the audience will feel comfortable to get up and sing themselves, too.”

Estefan Kitchen’s outdoor patio overflows into the central dining room, keeping a 1950s design intact. A mosaic mural of Gloria is plastered on a wall next to a large-screen television that often plays her concert videos from the ’80s. Nearby, there is an indoor-outdoor oyster shell bar for pre-dinner cocktails.

“We want to create a fun atmosphere here,” Gloria says. “Not like a karaoke bar necessarily, but somewhere where people feel comfortable to eat and enjoy.”

Estefan KitchenChef Odell Torres heads the kitchen, as well as the one at Larios on the Beach, the Estefans’ fine-dining establishment on Miami Beach. At Estefan Kitchen, Torres crafts a menu of revamped and upscale versions of classic Cuban plates. Some of his best-selling dishes include lechón-topped flatbread drizzled with truffle oil; vaca frita, which tops shredded flank steak with sautéed onions, rice and black beans; and Chino Cubano, a Cuban-style fried rice packed with shrimp, steak, bacon, egg and sweet plantains.

It is not uncommon to spot the Estefans dining in their own restaurant. Gloria says it is hard for them to forego an order of chicken vaca frita and the salmon tiradito—thinly sliced salmon crowned with lime and orange juices, red onions, pickled pineapples and jalapeños. 

First-time diners should consider the bacon-wrapped maduros, sweet plantains filled with cheese and hugged in applewood smoked bacon. The recommended main plates include lechón asado, in which roasted pork, marinated for 24 hours, is showered with grilled onions, mojo, rice and yucca; and paella, which takes about 30 minutes to prepare and blends lobster, shrimp, scallops and sweet plantains. Those on the go can visit the restaurant’s express café, which features Cuban coffee, sandwiches, juices and shakes.

Estefan Kitchen’s opening marks 25 years since the couple dived into hospitality with successful restaurants, including the newly opened Estefan Kitchen Express at Miami International Airport. Their goal was to bring their culture to the world through something more than music. In their restaurants, the Estefans are able to unite both, giving diners a taste of their lifestyle while their greatest hits play in the background.

“We can promote our culture through food as well as music here,” Gloria says. “They go well together and that’s part of our heritage. We’re hoping to still expand and continue to share our culture like this.”