Austin chef Paul Qui’s introduction to Alan Faena, the Argentine mogul who is transforming mid-Miami Beach with a flurry of luxury construction, has a storybook feel to it. The effervescent young Filipino artist, a Top Chef champion and James Beard Award winner whose root venues include food trucks, got an email from Faena’s people in 2014 querying whether he’d like to explore opening a restaurant in the Faena Hotel, what’s now one of the beach’s most dazzling skyprints.
Qui said yes, and the next thing he knew Faena and a 12-person entourage flew in for an 18-course dinner cooked by Qui. The trial by fire was a success, Pao by Paul Qui was born, and it’s been open now about 10 weeks.
The oval room with ocean view is both minimalistic and whimsical, with gorgeous wooden furniture, custom-made ceramic dishes and a stunning centerpiece of a gold-leafed Damien Hirst unicorn sculpture that cost $6 million. Servers literally flock from table to table with impressive efficiency. Faena himself might walk in and hobnob with friends and strangers, welcoming them to a new Mid-Beach that would have been difficult to envision 30 years ago sitting down to dinner at Lums.
Qui’s concept is heavily Filipino, with influences from both Spain and Asia, particularly Japan. The menu — sectored into crudos, small plates, charcoal-grilled meats and vegetables, rices, and big sharing plates — is jet-set expensive and fascinating, with rarely seen flavor combinations, top-shelf ingredients and a comprehensive bar and wine list.
Never miss a local story.
Execution so far is variable. On one visit, our signature rice first came out cold and in a portion size that Henry the Eighth might have piled up at Happy Buffet. Sent back, it returned from the kitchen hot but half the volume. Whole branzino is not normally deboned here, but a server promised that the chef would be “happy to debone it.” It came out riddled with bones — and perfectly cooked on one side and underdone on the other.
But a follow-up visit was enchanting, the service impeccable and the food every bit as creative as one could expect. With Qui’s penchant for working with executive sous chef Derek Salkin to constantly evolve the menu, Pao has a chance to join the upper echelon of Miami Beach dining.
Start with a crudo. Hearts of Palm Kinilaw was a delicate little plate of thinly sliced hiramasa (think yellowtail), slivered hearts of palm, sliced red onion, ginger and a 3-to-1 ratio of coconut milk to coconut vinegar. The fish is sublime, and the hearts of palm give pleasant crunch, but there’s a flatness that cries out for more citrus. Just so happened that there were lemon slices on the table, and a quick squeeze made this superb.
The initial plan at Pao was to do Binchotan service — grilling Japanese style over white charcoal — tableside, kind of like Benihana for billionaires. But this was quickly abandoned because of the smoke, and now the Binchotan grilling is done in the kitchen. Among the options are tuna, hamachi, wild mushrooms and our choice, diver scallop. For the 2-ounce minimum order, six dainty slices of scallop were brushed with a fermented paste of lime zest, garlic, chile and salt and flash-grilled directly on the charcoal and served with seasonal homemade vegetable pickles. Delectable.
Qui says he loves eating grilled bitter greens, and you will, too. This warm salad on the small-plates menu is a mix of whatever local greens are the freshest, grilled and tossed with pine nuts, a smoked onion crème fraiche and edible kelp.
Katsu Sando is pork Milanesa on pan de sal, a soft sweetened roll. The pork shoulder is cooked sous-vide, then dusted with panko and quickly fried. The result is tender and juicy, customized with Karashi mustard and sweet-and-sour fruit sauce. It has a twin in Chicken Sando, chicken marinated two days in green curry, galangal, ginger and garlic, coated with seasoned flour and corn starch and served on the pan de sal with cucumber atchara, a sweet Filipino pickle that Qui says he lifted from his grandmother.
Ready for some peanut soup? Qui salutes both Southern and Filipino cooking with peanut gazpacho. It’s a chilled puree of peanuts, charred eggplant, pickled bok choy and curry oil, and against the peanut backdrop you taste each flavor. This might be the most creative dish on the small-plates list.
Tiny designer starters are more culinary entertainment than sustenance, so you’d best get a rice dish to fill everyone up. Pao’s wild mushroom version is made of Koshihikari sushi rice, which somehow gets creamy while holding its shape and not devolving into overdone risotto. Some of the wild mushrooms are pickled, some are natural. Pork adobo rice is Qui’s “straight comfort” food: jasmine rice cooked with ginger, then larded with bits of smoky pork shoulder, dried shrimp and green mango pico. A generous duck egg cracked on top ties everything together.
Sharing plates truly are enough for two. Smoked short rib, Qui’s ode to barbecue in Austin, is a visual surprise in that it’s not a saucy braise but perfectly composed slices of super-marbled Wagyu, smoked seven hours then cooked sous-vide. The beefy flavor and lush texture shine through. A Japanese sweet potato puree, enriched with butter and tarted up with ginger and sake, makes for a top-notch meat-and-potatoes combo. Qui’s pickle fetish returns here, with delicious odds and ends of root veggies — cauliflower stems, green and white onion, broccoli and cauliflower leaves, peppers, beets, radishes — giving a sharp bite to offset the incredible richness of this dish.
That whole branzino, a misfire from the kitchen albeit a generous-size one, did have a lusty Indonesian-style sauce of black beans, onion, garlic chile, spicy shrimp paste and plenty of the sweet flavor branzino provides. Served with garlic-ginger rice.
Desserts are among the menu’s best creations. Champorado, a Filipino rice pudding with coconut milk and chile, has components of chocolate sorbet and a layer of firm chocolate on top, an interesting textural mix. The cheddar cheese ice cream sandwich sounds bizarre until you taste it, whisper-light waffle-based sandwich filled with sweet-savory ice cream made with two-year-aged Cabot white cheddar. Goat’s milk dulce de leche and peanut praline round out the plate.
Follow Kendall on Twitter @KHamersly.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.
If you go
Place: Pao by Paul Qui
Address: Faena Hotel, 3201 Collins Ave., Miami Beach
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ (Very Good)
Contact: 305-534-8800; faena.com
Hours: 6-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, till midnight Friday-Saturday
Prices: Starters $9-$50, rices $18-$39, shares $60-$195, desserts $12
FYI: Moderate noise level, corkage $50, $15 valet parking for restaurant patrons, reservations suggested