A wafer of toast tilted like an oversized painter’s beret atop supple bubble-gum-colored salmon cooked sous vide to a buttery finish ($6). A dollop of creme fraiche held baubles of smoked salmon roe and a teeny slice of pickled radish in place. Notes of salt and sea. The pop of roe, the crunch of toast, the slow melting of the fish as you take it in. Complex yet simple. This is what chef Paul Qui has sought since his time at Uchiko — the perfect bite.
He repeats the feat at his new restaurant, Kuneho, with the rich jiggle of uni lacquered with a translucent strip of lardo ($7), and dots a creamy soft scramble of eggs with trout roe on the tiniest tortilla you’ve ever seen ($6). As the Legos used as chopstick rests at the East Austin restaurant suggest, Qui is back to having fun creating in the kitchen, churning out so many dishes (about 50) that he needs both sides of his menu to fit them all.
The chef’s original restaurant, Qui, didn’t fail due to a lack of ideas. If anything, there were too many ideas. Too many voices in the chef’s head suggesting he try this thing or that, cook one way or another.
The restaurant, which the chef closed in September, about six months after he was arrested and charged with assault after a fight with his girlfriend (the case is still pending), suffered from a lack of leadership and clarity of vision.
At a time when the Philippines native should have been cresting on a wave of public and industry adulation following his win on “Top Chef” and a James Beard coronation, he was questioning his voice and often abdicating his responsibilities at Qui to the superstar team he assembled.
His menu swerved between a la carte and tasting menus. The patio was casual, the inside more serious. The Philippines were honored. As were France, Japan and Mexico. I think it confused people. I dug it, but I was probably in the minority. People need to understand a restaurant to feel comfortable with it.
The restaurant not only challenged and confused people; it frustrated them. Those who loved Qui’s work at Uchiko wanted more of that. Qui resisted. But Kuneho, which means rabbit in the tagalog language of the Philippines, finds Qui returning to those roots.
Madai carpaccio ($17) with smoked tamari will leave you wondering how garlic oil can be so subtle and thrill you with the power of the beautiful fish that just outpaces the lingering smoke.
You’ll make it to the crudos after navigating the roster of the dozen aforementioned perfect bites. Don’t miss the dainty and artful quail egg hiding specks of caviar ($3.50), and fans of Qui will want to order the Philippines-inspired morcilla sausage packed with iron-rich dinuguan ($3). The chef still pays tribute to the kaleidoscope of global cuisines, but does so in a more cohesive way.
Though Qui and his chef de cuisine and East Side King veteran Mia Li were absent on two of my visits, the raw program is in good hands with longtime Uchi head sushi chef Vu Le, a close friend of Qui’s and a partner at Kuneho. The kitchen balances tanginess of mackerel and bright ginger with toasted sesame seeds on one standout piece of nigiri ($3). Green tea oil, crispy garlic and a sliver of jalapeno give depth, clarity and crunch to luxurious cold-smoked salmon ($15), and the chefs were wise to give little adornment, just some fresh wasabi, to a ruby piece of big eye tuna ($5) and a majestic slab of lightly seared A5 Miyazaki wagyu ($14) brushed with smoked soy and tickled with black pepper. The only complaint with the sushi was the sticky and hefty rice one visit.
The simplicity of pieces of sweet blue crab ($5) and a wrapped bundle of sake-marinated salmon roe ($3) that tasted like kissing a mermaid’s neck stand in contrast to the rolls, which in one case pair apple with fried shrimp and dashi aioli ($10) and in another nod to Korea with a tender piece of short rib piqued by kimchi and sweetened with pear ($10). The rolls were fine, but there’s no need to linger in that section when there is so much more to offer.
We haven’t even gotten to the snacks or yakimono section. There’s even something called “And more,” featuring heavier dishes like half a fried chicken ($24) and a crispy rice bowl with crab ($19) for those who feel like they didn’t get their fill with the rest. The firefly squid ($8), the deep sea creatures tasting like they absorbed the essence of every bit of the ocean on their journey to the surface, and the slightly sweet and warming rabbit curry ($12), served with a Parmesan-dusted roti the size of a cricket bat, were standouts.
I was happy to see the kimcheese ($6) recently removed from the snacks menu. The execution was fine on the perfectly fried cylinder filled with Velveeta and kimchi ($6), but the stonery silliness felt out of place for a kitchen that creates such thoughtful dishes. We abided the playfulness a bit more with the Fruity Pebbles-infused pisco (yes, those Fruity Pebbles) used as the base for a whimsical and tropical Rockin’ Bird cocktail flavored with citrus and the nutty embrace of pistachio and pumpkin seed syrup ($14).
Diners who visited Qui will recognize the space, which has received some architectural details to break up a dining room that looks relatively the same. The sleek white sushi counter is new, and that’s where you should dine. You benefit from having a chef deliver your long succession of bites with a small explanation. The position also made for better flow to the meal. Seated in the dining room, our served disappeared for long periods of time; some food was delivered with no explanation; two dishes that we ordered never arrived; a dish sent as a lagniappe from the kitchen landed on the bill. It was as jarring as hearing an ’80s Pinot Grigio soundtrack featuring “Careless Whisper” and “Take My Breath Away” one night and Prince, LCD Soundsystem and Sly and the Family Stone another. By the time the chocolate mochi cake and its brick-like sweet potato semifreddo ($8) arrived, we had long been eyeing the door.
One of the hallmarks of Qui was the restaurant’s stellar service. Former members of the team have gone on to operate, manage, cook and serve at some of the best restaurants in Austin and across the globe. Even when things were apparently rocky internally, that team found a way to steady the ship. That level of refinement and attention to detail is missing at the new restaurant that still seems to be finding its footing.
What’s not missing at Kuneho are a sense of creativity and the excitement that comes from discovering the perfect bite. And that’s a good place to start.
1600 E. Sixth St. 512-436-9626, kunehoatx.com
Rating: 8 out of 10
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday. 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Perfect bites, $2-$7. Cold/crudo, $13-$17. Snacks, $6-$12. Nigiri, $3-$14. Sashimi, $12-$25. Rolls, $9-$13. And more, $12-$24. Dessert, $5-$8.
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: Paul Qui gets back to basics, creating small bites and sushi at Kuneho.