Paul Qui may be some mad genius, but the alchemy at his eponymous restaurant fizzles
Reviewed by Rachel Feit, Fri., Sept. 27, 2013
Mon.-Thu., 5-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm
By now, just about everyone in Austin has heard of Paul Qui, the 33-year-old wunderkind chef who rose through the ranks of Uchi and Uchiko, co-founded a string of wildly successful food trailers, and braved reality TV on Bravo's Top Chef. His self-titled restaurant, Qui, has been among the most anticipated Austin restaurant openings of 2013. Expectations for success have been almost superhumanly high.
Paul Qui has always been self-assured when it comes to inventive bites. At Uchiko and East Side King, his man-vs.-food approach to cooking helped define a new Asian fusion cuisine with clever dishes such as Jar Jar Duck (tea-smoked duck with candied citrus) and sweet-salty fried brussels sprout salad. Last year his no-boundaries intrepidness led him to victory on Top Chef: Texas. At Qui he has taken that spirit of culinary adventure even farther, to the point where many dishes push the limits of appropriateness. Some succeed masterfully, while others fall with a resounding thud.
Let's start with the things that work. Pasta curry style ($18) was an unexpected treat. Topped with tender squid and grilled okra and served in a silky Thai-accented broth, Qui turned a ho-hum pasta dish into something that was more than the sum of its parts. I loved the Salt & Time bavette steak ($24), which was as perfect as any steak can be. Crusty on the outside and rare on the inside, the meat tasted of citrus and smoke. It was paired with a crisp Japanese potato, similar to a fried taro root, and garlicky aioli. I liked the assertive way it took a stuffy old frame, the steak and potatoes, and gave it an unexpected magic that was exotic yet comforting. This is Paul Qui when he is at his best; whether he's making pasta or gnocchi, soup or vegetables, his food works when he allows himself to riff on a classical baseline.
The Rabbit 7 Ways ($46) employs the same trick and has quickly become the darling of foodies and critics alike (this author included). Big enough for two to split, it was served as a series of courses, starting with an intense rabbit consommé. The plate that followed was a cold course of bunny-based charcuterie, accented Asian style. There was a cold rabbit salad in a sweet and sour vinaigrette, then two types of rabbit sausage perched atop a smear of foie gras. The meal progressed to a hot rabbit plate that included roasted rabbit belly, a rabbit and shrimp mousse wrapped in a leaf, and rabbit loin, served satay style. Carrot-ginger dipping sauce, lettuce leaves, and fresh herbs accompanied the hot and cold plates.
On the other hand, I get the sense Qui is straining to be too clever, and this is when the kitchen loses focus. For instance, hen rice à la quique dacosta ($16) sounded thrilling in print – "double hen stock, crispy chicken skin, gremolata" – but what arrived on the plate was a small bowl of brown rice, bathed in an intense (and admittedly yummy) chicken stock topped with two bite-sized pieces of roasted chicken skin. The promised gremolata was nowhere evident, discarded for some wispy foam. The roasted quail ($16) was another dud, served practically raw, its skin limp and rubbery. But the kitchen's most egregious misstep came with the runny chawanmushi (traditional Japanese egg custard served in a cup, $16), mixed with bacon and topped with overcooked halibut and a few skimpy mushrooms. Drippy and curdy, the whole thing reminded me of a failed culinary science project.
My thoughts on dessert: best to stay away from the lackluster avocado "Qui" lime pie, or the jarring cheddar cheese ice cream sandwich with goat milk cajeta and peanut praline. Both seemed like an obscure joke that I just don't get.
Qui is a place I want to like, and perhaps Qui himself has fallen victim to the demands of his own celebrity. It is almost as if the chef, who can whip up PR as effortlessly as a lemon-yuzu dipping sauce, is testing the audience to see how long they will clap. I for one would like to see Qui come back to Earth and employ his considerable talent cooking food that makes sense and tastes good. With a little less reaching for the stars, and a little more attention to workmanship, Qui, the restaurant, could be great.