Paul Qui’s flagship restaurant is a testament to the chef’s boundless imagination
No other Austin restaurant opening in recent memory has garnered the amount of buzz and attention as Qui.
That excitement and anticipation bring expectations of chef-owner Paul Qui. It also presents a duality: One camp, blinded by adoration, will likely love whatever the affable “Top Chef” winner puts out while another group will hold the former Uchiko executive chef to an impossible standard.
It’s simultaneously a can’t-lose and can’t-win situation.
That made the opening all the more compelling for those who enter the frenzied fray with a level head. How would Qui respond to the hopes and demands of so many Uchiko acolytes and the countless foodies who felt such pride in the chef’s televised accomplishments? Would he play to expectations and put out food diners would instantly find familiar? Or would he chart a new course?
After three visits to the East Austin restaurant, it’s safe to say Qui is going to do whatever he wants, playing to a third camp, those willing to go along for the ride and watch how Qui and company manage to clear the high bar they set for themselves. That means pulling from culinary inspirations from around the globe, changing the menu more frequently than Mack Brown rotates defensive coordinators and following his abundant creativity wherever his imagination leads him.
The results can be as whimsical as the wall art of Peelander Yellow and menu design of local collective Public School (octopus with ume and watermelon purée), as refined as the service pottery of local artist Keith Kreeger (rabbit seven ways) and as comforting as the recessed wooden walls and fixtures (bavette steak). They can delight (marcona almond gazpacho) and confound (chawanmushi), sometimes at the same time (dinuguan).
Qui’s building is a collection of angled white slabs. The lack of adornment and color initially felt spare and incomplete, but after my first visit, I saw the design as a structural lab coat. Inside, Qui and his team of chefs — a distinguished group that includes former Uchiko chef Tim Dornon and former Minibar by José Andrés executive sous chef Jorge Hernandez — tinker and toy, dream and discover, formulate and test. Inside Paul Qui’s Playhouse, they pull ideas from a wall of tags with ingredients written on them and scattered moleskin notebooks.
From that laboratory comes an amuse bouche that I want to magically multiply and have as a meal: cheddar foam sprayed from a pastry canister onto a seaweed chip, a childlike umami spin on Ritz crackers and Cheez Whiz.
But there’s nothing childish about the marcona almond gazpacho ($16), made of delicate building blocks — a base of almond milk with shavings of chilled foie gras, rectangular jiggles of sherry gelée and alluring winks of truffled honey. Marcona almonds also comprise the base of an inventive mole with bright edges that serves as the bed for fall-off-the-bone roasted quail ($16) in a dish spiked with pickled yellow peppers.
Such thoughtfulness is at play with a sous vide and then braised baby octopus ($20), a preparation that makes for the most tender octopus dish I’ve had in town, and one that lacks the acrid char from the grill you find at other places. The octopus’ ume-watermelon puree carries the tart blush of hibiscus, but I wanted the prick of citrus to pierce the velvety puree a bit more.
Those dishes are listed on the left page of the menu that features smaller plates and appetizers (for lack of a better word). One visit that section included a wonderful smoked mackerel ($10), backlit by escabeche foam, tart sherry vinegar and the vegetal sting of shishitos.
Fans of Uchi’s hama chili will sense familiarity in the wild fatty yellowtail ($18). A cousin of that dish, here the translucent fish takes its citrus and tart from the lime-like calamansi and huckleberries as opposed to orange and ponzu, and the burn of those small Thai chiles does not go unnoticed.
Qui will likely be an introduction for many to some classic Filipino dishes such as kinilaw ($18), a tangy and creamy ceviche with chive and red chile, and Qui’s take on his Filipino grandmother’s dinuguan. That pork blood stew represents the kind of minor confusion that can come from the kitchen. The viscous concoction with slightly tough pork is topped with auburn rafts of lightly toasted gnocchi. They’re the best gnocchi I’ve had in Austin, but seemed out of place in the iron-rich stew. But as I worked my way to the bottom of the dish, I reconciled the cognitive dissonance of Filipino and Italian flavors.
Following his win on “Top Chef,” Qui ate in some of the world’s best restaurants (according to a quick perusal of his Twitter feed), and returned with some culinary inspiration. The Ode to Michel Bras ($12), named in honor of the famed chef known for his appreciation of and intricate work with vegetables native to his Laguiole, France, is a beauty to behold, but the artful dish of vegetables atop a chilled eggplant dashi seems better suited for a painting in the Louvre than the dinner table. And the hen rice ($16) that pays respect to Spanish chef Quique Dacosta suffered from too much salt and could have benefited from some acid.
Each course is delivered by the chef who cooked the dish, though that service touch was acknowledged only once we asked. The service choice is likely intended to connect the diner personally with the person who prepared the meal, and lead the diner to a better understanding and appreciation of the food. But with work to be done in the kitchen, these talented folks, who have chosen a career in the back of the house surrounded by fire and sharp knives, often don’t seem to have the time or inclination to elaborate with their descriptions. Qui can boast some of the best servers in Austin, veterans of respected places such as Wink, and the restaurant would be best served letting those people do their jobs and leaving the brilliant chefs in their natural habitat, the kitchen.
The right side of the menu features larger servings, or entrees, for lack of a better term, such as the exceptional fish caramel-glazed bavette steak ($24) from East Austin neighbors Salt & Time, though its accompanying firm, quick-pickled eggplant did its best to trump the savory beef. Qui also offers an audacious $150 côte de boeuf, the 3-pound cut advertised as being fit for two to six people.
While that behemoth may draw the most eyes, the rabbit seven ways ($46) turns the most heads. A cute soup mug with a bunny tail holds a restorative consommé that you sip while enjoying the other six preparations. Let us count the ways: 1) A ballotine wrapped in lard and served with pickled mustard seeds. 2) A smooth rillette. 3) Tender confit. 4) Sweet strands of grilled belly glazed with tamarind. 5) A melt-in-your mouth loin spiced with turmeric. And 6) A rabbit and shrimp marriage like a grilled dumpling but wrapped in caul fat instead of noodle. The symphony arrives with a plate of greens and a saucer of carrot nam pla, allowing you to create your own wraps.
Director of operations June Rodil (formerly the beverage director at Congress) paired the rabbit course with a crisp Ameztoi Rubentis Txakolina, the rosé served in a porrón (1/2 bottle for $28) that we passed around the table. Drinking directly from the long-neck pitcher, as is tradition, felt like a dare, but our self-consciousness gave way to conviviality. But unless you were sitting at the small table just inches from our own, you’d have been hard pressed to hear our laughter. Qui, with its small dining room and close tables, feels like a party, a loud party set to a sweet (and loud) soundtrack. The place usually fills by 6 p.m., though the crowds have been hard to predict. One night it was full before 5:45 p.m. early in the week, and another there were several tables available at 9 p.m. on a Thursday. The overflow crowds wait on an open-air patio where they can enjoy cocktails from the tiny foyer bar like the Queens Park Swizzle ($10), a tingly tropical mix of rum, lime, sugar, mint and bitters resembling the Bolivian flag, and the more subdued Bourbon Fancy ($10), with curacao taking the place of vermouth.
Qui doesn’t explicitly offer wine pairings, but at one meal the person who took our drink order said we could get full-pours to go with the groupings of our dishes (one glass for three fish dishes, another for the heavier items). We never agreed to the suggestion but received the wines anyway, a miscommunication as much my fault as the server’s but one that seems inevitable when so many different staff visit your table in the loud dining room. Between the drink ordering, the main server, the bussers, and the chefs running food, you can start to feel overwhelmed by the varied attention flying at your table.
But the attention comes with its rewards, like when the gregarious Rodil stops by your table to suggest a Trènel Crème de Pêche de Vigne peach liqueur to accompany your halo halo dessert ($8), coconut tapioca and leche flan studded with fruit gummies and chunks of cantaloupe; or pairs a Carmes de Rieussec Sauternes ($12) with the much-raved-about cheddar cheese ice cream sandwich ($12), thin layers of crunchy waffles sandwiching a decadent and savory cheddar cheese ice cream. It was like drinking honey to go with the dessert full of peanut butter notes.
The dessert exemplifies Qui’s playful and imaginative approach to flavors and presentation. It is the result of a hyperactive mind that refuses to rest, and the restaurant takes on the personality of the man whose name it bears: Look at these adorable Laguiole steak knives, and the homemade aprons worn by the staff. And who was that person who just came by our table? And how does he get that dish so tender, and why did they choose to put this on top of that? It can all feel a bit much at times, but somehow it all finds a way to come together at the end, providing an immersive dining experience.
At once, it’s not at all and exactly what you expect.