The Paul Qui songbook: A polyphonic review

 
 
Qui
1600 E. Sixth St. 512-436-9626, www.quiaustin.com.
Hours: 5-10pm Mon-Thu. 5-11pm Fri-Sat. Closed Sun
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
 
UPDATE: Qui has closed
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 09.03.13
 
If Qui were on tour, Rabbit 7 Ways would be the concert shirt. It’s the song everybody talks about, the announcement that Paul Qui has arrived. No longer just the Uchi protégé or the deferential “Top Chef” winner, but a bankable act.
 
And it’s probably a greatest hit that Qui will have to play until all the joy’s sucked out of it. But maybe not. Qui is like a concept album, not just two hits and some filler. Overall, the band is energetic and fun if not exactly tight. The Polyphonic Spree with gold aprons. It’s Deana Saukam’s front-of-house joy, June Rodil’s kinetic cheer, manager Bill Mann’s everything-all-the-time. It’s A Parallel’s design, Peelander Yellow’s brushwork, Keith Kreeger’s pottery. Qui and the Gang on the ones and twos.
 
The song goes like this: Silky confit, spicy belly, meltaway loin. Rabbit and shrimp in betel leaf like dolmas. Mild sausage with lardo; funky fermented sausage with guanciale. That’s six ways, rounded to seven with bronzed consomme for sipping and a bowl of greens and herbs to wrap the rest.
 
The menu’s rolled through more changes than Spinal Tap’s drummer since Qui opened June 20. A rotation of small plates from $9-$16, bigger plates from $15-$26, sometimes grilled yakitori curiosities for $2. The rabbit goes for $46, and a hulking dry-aged côte de boeuf will set you back $150.
 
Versatility leaves room for things like dinuguan, a Filipino stew with pig’s blood and vinegar. From that blunt premise came a deeply satisfying alchemy of tender pork, hot gnocchi dumplings and thick country broth. “My grandmother would put everything in the pot and cook it together,” Qui said. “But instead of doing that, because I feel like some parts get overcooked and some parts don’t, I cook everything separately and put it together.” Grandma’s recipe, grandson’s technique.
 
Physically, Qui fits in with East Sixth Street. The light industrial part of it. The building’s a bony whitewash of angles broken by a steel walking gate with cedar slats like a designer self-storage lot. The name is bored into the gate and only into the gate, as inconspicuous as a keyhole (or Quihole, by way of pronunciation). The interior is more style-conscious. It’s certainly accessorized well, with thick, hand-thrown stoneware and candy-handled Laguiole knives.
 
One wall is cased in distressed wood, another in wood like crystallized honey, another with wallpaper that looks like neutral white damask but resolves into the same frenetic graffiti that swarms Paul Qui’s East Side King operations. The bar’s a seven-seat jewelbox, a place where you’ll spend a fair amount of time, because Qui doesn’t take reservations. It opens at 5, and the times I was there, every table was taken an hour later. (12/13 UPDATE: Qui now takes reservations. E-mail reservations@quiaustin.com.)
 
The dining room is cramped, and unless you studiously avoid the eye contact and frisson of proximity generated by New York table microspacing, you can’t help but get some input from the neighbors just an elbow away. I shared a few bites of Qui Lime Pie with the couple next to me, and one of them incisively described the cool avocado-citrus-chile powder combination as “guacamole and a margarita.”
 
 
The kitchen is huge, a square space notched into the dining room with seats like being courtside at the Knicks. Surely it stands among the highest ratios of kitchen-to-table space in restaurants of this caliber. They need it, with eight cooks even on a weeknight, among them Qui himself, former Uchiko chef Tim Dornon, Spin Modern Thai alum Thai Changthong, New York transplant Max Snyder and José Andrés acolyte Jorge Hernandez. You’ll likely meet a few of them as they personally walk their creations to your table like player-managers, because there is no “I” in “team service,” except for that lowercase one. And few restaurant teams have better uniforms than Qui’s goldenrod aprons with hardware like overalls and broad colorful patches of polka dots, stripes and gingham.
 
The clutter of a staff workspace is only half-hidden from the dining room by a wooden screen that holds a gallery of white tags hanging by strings, each one with a food name or style written in Sharpie. Watermelon, white kimchi, sous vide, juniper. Easily 50 or more, some strung together in groups like Claire Danes’ “Homeland” wonder wall. Dish design by free association.
 
In a less flattering light, the tag wall is also an incubator for culinary Mad Libs, fill-in-the-blank exercises that produced discordant dishes like a plate of toasted pinenuts and pumpkin seeds with clam, matsutake mushrooms and sunflower petals. Or a ring of extruded hominy set with shrimp at 10, 2, 4 and 8 like a clock face, its dial painted with fish sauce. Enjoy your (Adjective) (Random Protein). It’s made with (Any Emotion)! Hyperactive-Tree Weasel-Chagrin.
 
But from that same wall came harmonic convergences like gazpacho made with almond milk, shaved foie gras and amontillado gelée. And tender roasted quail with sweet beer curd and crisp wedges of lemon cucumber. Or roasted Chinese eggplant with basil seeds, yogurt and squash sofrito. With its knife-and-fork substance and sweet-sour interplay, the hardy stem-on eggplant was a better showcase for the vegetable than the overly precious Ode to Michel Bras, the French chef and vegetable savant. For that dish, chilled eggplant dashi was poured tableside over a matchbox diorama of vegetables and herbs.
 
It was a cute little affectation, but one that left me wondering if the whole menu would be scale models of actual food, a thought dispelled not at all by another tribute, this one to Spanish risotto rockstar Quique Dacosta, a wartime ration of weaponized chicken stock and rice shrouded in the foam of war.
 
Looking to fill the empty corners ahead, we started piling on the plates. A snack of fried baby shrimp with aioli. A ham-and-egg custard called chawanmushi with monkeyface eel, a beast both terrifying and delicious. And finally, the daily butcher’s cut from Salt & Time. And that’s where the small-plates thing lost its kvetching edge, courtesy of a pork blade steak the size of an oven mitt. Seared like a tailgate tubthumper with caramelized corners and a scorching Hatch chile puree, the steak called for a lager drink and then a cider drink: a sharp ginger burner of an ale from Japan’s Hitachino Nest and a cool, sweet Original Sin cider.
 
 
Qui is fully invested in the alcoholic arts. But when Michael Simon left as Qui’s bar manager last month, he took two pages of cocktails with him. It made a difference from one visit to the next. He took Lena Dunham’s Mule, a sweet green ginger and vodka thing with a celery backbite. He took the gin-and-juice Monkey Gland, redeeming that awful name with a wash of absinthe. What took their places was a page of understudies: a housebroken Moscow Mule, a Tequila Bramble with blackberries and a White Palmetto with rhum agricole that drank like a white port.
 
As Qui’s director of operations, Rodil brought her sense of adventure from her sommelier days at Congress, a willingness to work on and off her printed list. I asked her to build wine pairings around my table’s orders, whatever she thought might fit for $30 per person. She responded with Haak Vineyards Texas Madeira as sweet and hot as a prairie sundown, then rolled into Robert Weil riesling that cut right through a bits-and-pieces dish of roasted salmon fin and amberjack collar. Its second-cut provenance aside, Qui’s Fins and Collars was a banquet of rich, oily meat scooped from the bones and the roasty char of fin and skin.
 
Further into the pairings, a Spanish white called Navaherreros by Bernabeleva met quail with muted oak, and the straight country dust and fruit of Pierre Chermette Beaujolais squared well with that pig’s-blood stew, leaving the sweet sting of Trenel Crème de Pêche peach liqueur to work with the Filipino ice-and-cream dessert called halo halo and its cool array of cantaloupe, coconut tapioca, leche flan and gummi-style apricot pâté de fruit.
 
I’d have welcomed the sweetness with another of Qui’s already time-worn hits, an ice cream sandwich made with crispy waffle layers and cheddar cheese ice cream, a union of our New World sweet-tooth dinner denouement and the Old World cheese course coup de grâce. I didn’t get enough of either culture’s gifts, just cold bland comfort. Just like with my favorite records, I don’t groove on every track. But Qui is holding up on repeated listens, a real player in the restaurant rotation.
 
(TOP, clockwise from left: The warm wooden hues and strong kitchen presence of Qui’s interior. Eggplant dashi in the Ode to Michel Bras. The restaurant’s name appears only on the sliding gate. A dish of salmon fin and amberjack collar. Tags from the idea wall at Qui. FIRST INSET, clockwise from top left: The Filipino pork’s blood stew called dinuguan. The bar seats eight and stands many more during the wait for tables. Rabbit 7 Ways. Shrimp and hominy. Tequila Bramble and White Palmetto cocktails. SECOND INSET, clockwise from left): Qui’s patchwork aprons. Cheddar cheese ice cream sandwich. The gate on Sixth Street opens onto the patio. Qui Lime Pie with avocado and chile meringue. A ham-and-egg custard dish called chawanmushi with salmon roe and monkeyface eel. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)