On an overcast Saturday in Miami Beach, Paul Qui and his team are furiously preparing hundreds of portions of pork dinuguan at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. As the crowds gather for dinner and music by the ocean, Qui pulls red-hot grill grates off the open fire and drops them on the beach to cool. As his team works quickly and confidently, he remarks with a head shake, “I wish my calendar had said there was a 45-minute preview. I thought this started at 7!”
Despite the truncated prep time, the Pao Miami team greets the first guests with a sample of Qui’s signature pork blood stew with a refreshing complement of fermented papaya, served as part of Meatopia, a Michael Symon-curated event celebrating the memory of noted food writer Josh Ozersky.
Qui could be forgiven for feeling over scheduled: He’d spent two of the previous three nights co-hosting dinners with Argentine grilling master Francis Mallmann — both have restaurants in South Beach’s new Faena Hotel. And a few days before, he’d been all over the room talking to guests and getting feedback at the opening of the first brick-and-mortar East Side King Thai-Kun location in Austin’s Domain.
Perhaps the opening of greatest interest to Austinites, the Thai-Kun Domain menu expands on the wildly successful food truck developed by Qui, Thai Changthong, and Moto Utsunomiya. The extra kitchen space allows for family-style dinners like deep-fried whole seabass with green mango salad and Thai fried crab rice with mushrooms, green onions, and egg.
When asked for a favorite, Qui laughs. “Man, I’d eat that whole menu, and I do — probably two or three times a week! The whole grilled chicken is one favorite. It always sells out, so go early [to get it]. All of the chicken dishes are pretty money, actually, and so is the whole fish. I recommend the papaya salad, too, if you can handle the spice.”
If opening Pao in December and Thai-Kun in February weren’t enough, Qui’s third opening of the season, Otoko, just launched in the South Congress Hotel. While Pao carries elements of Qui’s namesake restaurant and Thai-Kun builds on the trailer’s success, Otoko is an entirely new animal. The space only holds 12 diners and is focused on Kyoto’s kaiseki style of Japanese food, which emphasizes fresh, high-quality seasonal ingredients in precise portions.
The prix-fixe menu must be purchased in advance via the restaurant’s website; the only choice the diner makes is that of their beverage. When asked whether sake or wine is preferable, Qui reframes the question. “I’m pretty old-school when it comes to sushi. I personally like green tea.”
He describes the restaurant’s ethos as simply “about the journey,” noting the all omakase format. A small cocktail bar called Watertrade is connected to the restaurant and will soon open to the public via reservation only. Otoko's reservations for March and April are already sold out, and May bookings begin on April 1.
As Otoko launches, the first reviews of Pao have come in, and it’s not a surprise to report they are quite good. The Miami Herald has already weighed in, calling Pao “jet-set expensive and fascinating, with rarely seen flavor combinations [and] top-shelf ingredients” and “the food every bit as creative as one could expect.”
While much of the pre-launch press focused on the space’s visual centerpiece, a Damien Hirst unicorn sculpture, patrons also seem to be taken with Qui’s cooking style. “Miami has warmed to us pretty well. We’re pretty busy, but thankfully my chef de cuisine here is from Austin, and I’ve cooked with him since 2008 at Uchi.”
Popular favorites like the kinilaw ceviche have made the jump from Austin’s qui menu, but Qui continues to experiment. “I think if anything we’ve added a little more of my Filipino influences into the Miami menu.”
With Qui’s ever-expanding restaurant portfolio and national profile, the term “a little more influence” may soon prove to be an understatement.