Restaurant Review: Kuneho
Does Paul Qui’s new concept offer redemption?
Reviewed by Melody Fury, Fri., April 14, 2017
Sun.-Thu., 5-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm
It's a bit of an understatement to say Paul Qui's name strikes up conflicting sentiments in Austin. His humble demeanor and gastronomic genius made him a local sweetheart far before Top Chef. But the shocking March 2016 arrest on charges of assault not only tainted his reputation with much of the community, but also the faith that his staff had in him. His flagship East Sixth restaurant shuttered abruptly later in that year to the dismay of some and a sense of justice-is-served to others.
Change was obviously necessary, and it came in the form of Kuneho, a new name in the same space that is ostensibly a return to Qui's roots. But it would be a mistake to call it an entirely new concept. Once inside, I found myself playing "spot the difference" from the nearly identical qui. There wasn't much to circle, save less Peelander-Yellow art, new divider shelves, and more expansive counter seating. One more difference stood out: Qui was nowhere in sight on both evenings I visited, which did not give me the reassurance I had hoped for.
Browsing the vast, eclectic menu reminded me of an izakaya's multi-sectioned fresh sheet. Here, Japanese techniques blend with tapas, alongside Qui's signature Southeast Asian flavor palate. Calling their pintxo the "perfect bites" was bold but apt. Yuzukosho and lime gave unexpected brightness to caramelized eggplant slices ($2). Meltingly supple "salmon butter V3.0" ($5) was ever-so-gingerly poached in olive oil, then topped with pickled radish, roe, and crunchy pain de mie. Jiggly chawanmushi ($8) was steamed in its own egg shell, nesting on a bed of kelp. A tostada made the ideal vehicle for the tuna larb ($5), intensified by layers of Thai chile, toasted rice powder, and fish sauce.
The whimsy gave way to bolder plates in the form of crudos and snacks, many discounted during happy hour. In the saba escabeche ($12), ponzu tempered the mackerel's oily richness, with added brightness coming from heirloom tomatoes and grapefruit zest. Kinilawin ($16), a Filipino-style ceviche, was equally refreshing and impactful. Hamachi cubes and crisp heart of palm bathed in a luscious chile-laced coconut milk and coconut vinegar dressing.
Veering away from the delicate flavors, Kuneho's deep-fried snacks and yakimono items packed punch. The mystical "fish caramel" – a sticky oceany tare – made the chicken karaage ($8) and binchotan-grilled "yummy chicken parts" (chicken heart, crispy chicken skin – $8) addictive. Then, there's the kimcheese ($6), a dig-through-the-fridge stoner hybrid. Fun overcame flavor in the cigar-shaped eggrolls stuffed with kimchi and molten "Velveeta."
From there, the ambitious menu stretched even further with an entire section dedicated to sushi. Besides the rice being a touch too firm on one evening, the nigiri held its own. Hotate's oceany sweetness ($5) was perfectly balanced by yuzukosho and tamari. Flawlessly sliced toro ($10), accented by freshly grated wasabi, rushed the palate with its luxurious fat. But the most opulent offering must have been the A5 Miyazaki Wagyu ($14), a buttery marbled slice of the world's most revered beef, gently kissed by binchotan to add smokiness. Time stood still with each chew.
However, the more humble picks captivated me in unexpected ways. The enoki mushroom ($3), deeply umami and grilled to the ideal doneness, and the fluffy mound of crispy onions ($3) gave the nigiri high impact without the big bucks. At $6, the finely scored 28-day aged beef tongue brushed with fish caramel was a solid stand-in for the Wagyu.
Minor flaws only began to creep in with the more substantial plates. As tender as the pork belly lechon was ($11), it only held one flat note in the vinegary sauce and cubes of Asian pear. And the unicorn en vaso ($12) with grilled corn, corn milk, and sea urchin did not measure up to its enchanting name with the corn's natural sweetness overpowering the uni's nuance. But the two rice dishes, the sisig (a Filipino specialty with sizzling pig head meat, $14) and Kuneho blue crab ($18) topped with yuzu and garlic panko, were so spot-on delicious that I wished they offered takeout.
The theatrics played on right down to the dessert. The foie gras mousse-filled pastry foie "roti boy" ($5) was an over-the-top collision of sweet and savory. Perfumy jasmine milk sorbet accompanying the chocolate mochi cake stole the show ($8). The Borough bar's cocktails too, were artfully balanced. Two especially memorable imbibes were the Dim Ignition ($13), a complex Botanist gin and fino sherry concoction with a slight bitter finish, and the El Camino Real ($11), a bourbon-based sipper highlighted by grapefruit and a mezcal float. Unfortunately, the beverage service was out of sync at times, with my glass sitting awkwardly empty for almost 10 minutes once, and the server unable to answer questions about the saké list on another occasion.
The question of whether Qui has redeemed himself lingered in my mind throughout the meals. When focusing on the food alone, the answer was a resounding "yes." It was clear that chef de cuisine Mia Li runs a tight ship, sending out only what she was proud of. Even so, the show's tune has changed. The transformation to deliver more approachable fare was indeed successful. But while sitting at the counter, the hot and cold service was unable to swoon me like they once did. At each progression of the meal, I couldn't help but ask "Where's Qui?" and wonder if he would one day bring cohesion between food and service back.
Kuneho1600 E. Sixth, 512/436-9626
Sun.-Thu., 5-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm