The namesake and flagship restaurant from the James Beard Award-winning, Top Chef-conquering Paul Qui has been on my must-visit list since its inception. Nearly three years after opening, the nightly Instagram paparazzi has faded, service has been polished, and the confusing small plates plus family-style menu streamlined into two tasting options. The newness has worn off and systems have been put in place -- making it the perfect time to finally dine here.
Of course, the man himself no longer has to lead the kitchen on a Friday night, and I’m assuming his absences are more normal than his visits. Also not present was the chef de cuisine, Jorge Hernandez (formerly of Minibar), but it seems like Qui has learned from his senpai and attracted a deep roster of talent: his sous chefs handled the open kitchen during my meal without a hitch.
The dining room at Qui is tasting menu only ($70 standard and $55 for the vegetable option). There is also a six-seat counter that does a different, more modernist tasting menu ($120) which is available through ticketed reservations.
Gin & tonic / Ford’s gin, Takara plum wine, Bittermens “Commonwealth” tonic cordial, Topo Chico ($14) -- Topo Chico in a gin and tonic! A palm-to-forehead moment for not realizing this amazing combination a half-decade ago.
Hiyashi chawanmushi, almond dashi, smoked trout roe, marcona praline -- Beautifully plated and ingredients that read like a winner, yet lacking any memorable flavor. The cold custard was flat-tasting and only a dab or two of the roe added anything to the dish.
Whipped lardo, carrot, jamon iberico, goat milk yogurt, chervil -- At this point I was scared for the rest of my meal. The foamed lardo was nondescript, washing over the muted carrots and bits of supreme quality ham with bad synergy.
Confit sunchoke, pork blood, coconut vinegar, black lime, pickled garlic -- Just as they were about to lose me, pig blood comes to the rescue. This was a basically a few sunchokes with garnishes, but the velvety, rich pork blood sauce was phenomenal. The first “wow” moment of the night.
Confit hen of the woods, egg yolk, sal de gusano, rosemary -- A delicious bit of confit fungus. “Mushroom with a few drops of egg yolk and toasted bread crumbs” would be a simpler description, albeit less sexy.
Arroz caldo, crispy pig face, Island Creek oyster, pasilla chile -- Congee served with delectably crunchy pork bits wafting throughout. A plump oyster hidden at the bottom of the bowl was a pleasant finish.
Strube Ranch ribeye, grilled brassicas, rat tail radish, sakura beef broth -- This one didn’t work for me. A ribeye involtini that was difficult to cut and not especially flavorful. The wrapped brassica was nicely done, however, and the well-attended, extremely clear broth was the best part of the dish.
Maja de camote, sweet potato pudding, ginger yogurt sorbet, binchotan seared meringue -- One of the best desserts I’ve ever had. The presentation was also fun, as the meringue topper is seared table-side using a white-hot piece of Japanese charcoal (maybe not the best practice for the liability insurance). The hot and cold, restrained sweetness, balanced composition -- all perfection.
I had talked myself into doing both tastings beforehand, so with very little prodding by the wait staff it was time to tackle the vegetable side of things. At this point I also have to commend the exemplary service. Despite a “laid-back”, “unpretentious” reputation, the service procedures were what you would expect from a formal fine dining experience: tables wiped down with a hot towel between courses, unobtrusive but feedback-seeking servers, and pace-of-meal adjustments to your liking (I preferred the courses come out faster).
Before I had even mentioned a second tasting, one server brought up the suggestion himself -- thoughtfully delaying the dessert of the first menu until all savories were finished. There was never that lingering moment where you think to ask for something, because they always anticipated your needs.
Coliflor con migas, brown butter, pea tendril, caper -- Purple cauliflower served room temperature with a little extra umami. A pleasant start.
Lettuce, crème fraiche, apple, brassicas, pine nut -- This was a standout among both menus. The lettuce had been smoked (or grilled?), mixing beautifully with the rest of the ingredients.
Trumpet royale, hedgehog, yamaimo, purple mustard, mojo de ajo -- Another mushroom plating, but far superior to the regular menu. The herbed mojo sauce was addicting and went brilliantly with the roasted mushrooms and yams.
Smoked beet, black vinegar, toasted seaweed, shiso -- Not much new to be done with beets these days. A 12-hour smoke and Asian garnishes were a decent try.
Rice noodle pancit, shiitake, cabbage, black garlic, grain broth -- I haven’t eaten many Filipino noodles before, but I imagine these were among the better versions. Rustic and comforting.
Sweet potato, smoked goat feta, onion, heart of palm, miso, tumeric -- Hearty, and reminiscent of a pasta course: grated cheese on top, onion in the background, and textures that mimicked marinara. Make the sweet potatoes into gnocchi and it’d be great Italian fusion.
Parsnip panna cotta, toasted farro ice cream, huckleberry, toffee, honey tuile, walnut -- I wish I could give proper credit to the pastry genius behind these two spectacular desserts. Monica Glenn led the department as recently as last summer, but there’s no mention of her on the updated website bios page. Regardless, the dessert itself was another masterclass in textures (best ice cream in town), balance, and simply elegant composition. I am not a fan of impractical art display desserts, or the quenelle plus scattered crumbles and shards plating.
Cheddar cheese ice cream sandwich ($12) -- Perhaps as a dare after 14 courses, I was presented the pulatan a la carte menu, which is usually restricted to the bar and patio spaces. Challenge accepted. One of two dishes from the opening menu still hanging around, this was an ice cream cookie sandwich made memorable by the salty cheese filling and airy waffle crackers encasing it. Presented with a warm towel because you should only eat this with your hands.
Jamon iberico -- A gift from the chefs working the six-seat $120 tasting menu. So much better than the dish it was being used for, and a great gesture as well.
Qui seems at its best when the chef reaches into his Filipino handbook and adds his own style. Pork blood dinuguan, rice porridge, spicy noodles, cheese ice cream (a national favorite)…it’s almost as if Qui is a fine dining Filipino restaurant without trying to be one. There were a few examples where high-level technique did not translate into high-level flavor, so I understand the criticisms, but I enjoyed the overall experience quite a bit by the time I walked back out to 6th Street. A unique restaurant worth consideration.