It wasn't until the quail dish that Paul Qui and his crew began to break a sweat during Wednesday night's dinner service at the Top Chef winner's NYC cooking debut at culinary salon City Grit. Still, despite being "a little in the weeds," as Paul put it, there was a sense of calm confidence guiding them through yet another busy night of putting out 600+ plates of stellar grub in under 3 hours.
Qui, the James Beard Award winner who dominated season nine of Chef, brought his brilliant cooking (and a handful of his Austin, Texas crew) to New York City for a six-night stint rocking the palates of Big Apple diners at the all-sold-out City Grit Presents: Paul Qui dinners. And trust us, anyone who tasted Paul's seven-course journey through all things delicious can see why he's earned all of his recent accolades.
The night started off with the beautifully composed "Tuna Jamon," raw tuna loin wrapped in lardo with little cylinders of compressed melon and a grating of dehydrated soy sauce, followed by course two of "Tomato Water," a summer-in-a-bowl dish of strained pureed tomato with a gorgeous little pile of cherry tomatoes, mussels and lemon basil as the base.
Despite it being the third night executing this menu, Paul told us there's always tweaks and changes -- but that's just part of being a top-level chef.
"I feel like everything could be done better the next day," he said during a lull in service. "It's a continuous process. And if you're going to be in this industry and want to perform at a high level, you can't go to sleep and check out of the restaurant. You go to bed thinking about it. It's a passion in the industry, always thinking of ways to make it better. No day is ever perfect."
As the food kept coming, frequent subtle nods to Paul's Asian background were all over the meal. A sunchoke dashi broth poured over an impeccably presented baby vegetable salad, nori-pumpernickel powder gracing the aforementioned quail (not to mention the Thai chile gastrique on top of the little bird), and a bafflingly delicious desert that paired panang curry, pickled peaches and a spicy caramel meringue in a rice milk panna cotta. A fellow diner declared it as "so unusual, but so delicious."
But the dish that had the entire room swooning was the pork jowl. Slow roasted for hours, thick unctuous slices were served with a corn puree, fresh corn, coriander and black lime.
Paul, sporting a nasty burn on his chin from a sheet pan that he chalked up to "too excited, too much caffeine and being in New York City," dropped into the dining room alongside City Grit founder Sarah Simmons to field questions, explain his food and give everyone an update on his upcoming Austin projects. With his calm, friendly demeanor, it's easy to tell that Paul genuinely cares about how people perceive what he's serving them.
"For me, it's all about the guests. I'm OK saying I messed up or changed the menu if there's a better ingredient at the farmer's market and I think you'll enjoy it more. I think for the most part people appreciate that ... It's just about making people happy."
Check out our photo gallery from the night, and here's a video look inside Paul's City Grit meals as well.