Paul Qui is as close to Austin royalty as it gets. His East Side Kings have dominated the food truck scene, to the tune of three trucks and two brick and mortar restaurants. But the former Top Chef winner and Uchi and Uchiko chef de cuisine isn’t content with the culinary throne he’s carved out for himself. And his flagship restaurant Qui on East 6th Street, showcases his passion for creativity. In a town ruled by BBQ, Qui manages to elevate itself by serving seriously tasty, visually impressive, honest food.
The location is centralized in his East Side empire and exudes a calming feng shui (I hear they have staff yoga before opening). You’re greeted by a warm wood interior, a bustling open kitchen and tables that are so close together it makes the communal seating at Barley Swine feel spacious. None of this detracts from the dining experience though (assuming you like your neighbors).
When it comes to food choices, you have two options: either order a la carte off the menu or “let Paul pick ($70)”. There were too many good looking choices and at this point, I figured I was in capable hands, so I let the kitchen do the deciding.
Being in Austin, it only made sense to order the “Official Drink of Austin” (**** out of 5 stars), which was an utterly refreshing combination of tepache, balcones rumble, honey, lemon, thai basil and mint.
The drinks were followed with a first course of incredibly fresh wild seabreem and sea bass (*** out of 5). The seabream was dressed in lemon zest, while the sea bass had a sweet peach compote with ponzu. The later being my favorite out of the two.
Keeping the seafood theme rolling, we were served a cup of mussels in tomato water (***** out of 5) with baby tomatoes, basil and olive oil. The flavors were clean, briny and bright and the mussels tasted like they jumped straight from the ocean into the cup (minus the sand). The waitress remarked that the kitchen went through about 50 pounds of tomatoes to make the water for that dish for the night. She said out of those 50 pounds, it only produces a gallon or so. For all that work, I salute them, as it was an utterly refreshing dish, especially on a hot Texas night.
An amuse bouche was interjected at this point. And while I was hoping to make it through a fine dining experience without foam, that dream was cut short when we were presented cheese and crackers (* out of five). It was an overly salty cheese foam sitting on a dry “cracker”, although it had more a biscuit texture. What made it less impressive was the foam was melted within 30 seconds, leaving a running, white mess that was neither foam, nor liquid. It was foam with an identity crisis.
Maybe the kitchen aptly recognized the need for a palate cleanser after the cheesy cracker debacle, because they sent out one of the most beautiful plates of vegetables (**** out of 5) I’ve ever seen. It was a cacophony of greenery, interspersed with the occasional red lettuce, beet and radish. The plate was finished with a table side pour of a green pea puree on top. Utterly earthy flavors changed with every bite, thanks to the diversity they crammed onto the plate. I felt a moment of guilt disturbing the perfectly arranged plate, but after the first bite, the guilt evolved into pleasure.
Sufficiently filled with vegetables at this point, the polar opposite of the previous dish arrived at the table: Braised pork shoulder with pigs blood, gnocchi, mushrooms and a coconut vinegar (**** out of 5). It was savory heaven at this point. The red onions and acid from the vinegar helped to cut through the rich, mineral elements of the blood, which otherwise might have dominated. And the gnocchi… the soft, airy potato pillows swimming with chunks of pork and thickened blood were the perfect vessel to mop up the salty, maroon colored sauce left on the plate.
Feeling beyond impressed with the last dish, slightly full and working on my third “Official Drink of Austin”, a giant plate of chicken (** out of 5) found it’s way to our table. The waitresses description had me drooling before the first bite. Words like miso carmel and citrus ponzu sold me. I was ready for that first bite of total umami overload. Unfortunately, that moment of revelation never occurred. It was a moist, nicely cooked chicken, but all the appealing elements seemingly vanished when it arrived on the wooden plate at our table. The citrus ponzu sauced that it was served with was a nice touch, but the miso and other flavors were absent. We shared half the chicken with our neighbors (separated by 6 inches of table gap) who were equally mesmerized by the description. Their reactions were similar to mine: “It taste like a decent chicken.”
Knowing that the chicken was the grand finale was a bit disappointing, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Normally, desserts do nothing for me. When presented a dessert, I tend to think about all the other savory dishes I wish I could trade it for. Qui proved me SO wrong.
This was the ice cream sandwich I wish I could keep in my freezer year round. A salty yet sweet, cheddar cheese ice cream sandwich (***** out of 5). Aged cheddar cheese ice cream wedged in between two crispy waffles, coated in honey and laced with a peanut praline, it hit every flavor note possible. And while the dish looked relatively simple, the first bite sent me into euphoric taste bud spasms. Despite how wonderful it was, I couldn’t even managed a smile while eating it. I was actually mad at this little sandwich. Qui’s ice cream sandwich shattered my notion that desserts were a waste of time and tummy space. They proved that not all desserts suck, especially their’s. That was a grand finale worthy of an encore.