Kai Cafe and Restaurant in Galway was honoured with a Michelin Bib, given to laid-back, approachable restaurants offering simpler food combining high quality with good value for money.
During my lunchtime visit to Kai Cafe and Restaurant on a grey, windy and rainy day, I was enveloped by the warmth of the wood burning stove, the chatter of diners and the hipster vibe.
The main attraction for me was reading about Kai in the Irish Times Food Magazine. Head chef and co-founder Jess Murphy, who hails from New Zealand and was head chef at Galway’s Ard Bia, has a column in the magazine sharing her favourite recipes. We bonded (I know I am overstating this) on Twitter over her ribollita recipe, which I recreated in my Airbnb kitchen. She graciously retweeted my picture and commented: “Looks fab so hearty especially for this weather”.
— Paola Bassanese (@paolaenergya) December 16, 2018
Lunch at Kai Cafe and Restaurant Is Informal and Satisfying
Because I take my food very seriously and I read everywhere you need to book in advance, I called one Monday morning to reserve a table for lunch and I was told it was not necessary and I could simply pop in. I thought that was a great start, as I thought I might need to join a waiting list. However, remember that a reservation is essential for dinner.
The menu changes on a regular basis and browsing through the website will not really help. Unfortunately there is only a picture of a dinner menu and if you go to the Gallery page you are greeted by a 404 error message. Talking about the website, it’s worth having a read of the list of local suppliers where Kai source their dairy, meat, fish and vegetables.
The blackboard hand-written menu tempted me with the monkfish laksa dish. This is no ordinary Malaysian laksa noodle soup. First of all, there’s the creamy and indulgent sauce, rich with coconut milk and spiced with chilli, lemongrass and galangal. Then there’s the monkfish, very delicate and melting away in the mouth. There’s a layer of crunchiness with toasted broad beans (a nod to Peru, perhaps?) and smokiness with charred pak choi. Of course, there were noodles, too (I am pretty sure they were buckwheat soba noodles). What I didn’t understand was the slice of focaccia that came with it. It was delicious and I was greedy so I ate most of it, but soon realised I was already so full from the soup.
I was intentionally trying to leave some space in my ever-expanding stomach for dessert.
I heard great things about the cakes at Kai and I could not leave without trying one. I was so committed to this mission that, almost before ordering lunch, I was scanning the counter for available desserts. I knew the pistachio cake was my match.
I didn’t expect the cake to be so dense and the custard topping to be so thick. This is no criticism, by the way: because lunch was so filling, it was surprising that an innocent-looking pistachio cake would send me into a food coma.
However, this cake is indeed heavy and it’s better to have it on its own with coffee in the morning and not at the end of a meal. [Editor’s note: while formatting the cake picture for the website I noticed some dust on the custard, I wish I had seen it with my naked eye.]
The vibe at Kai is a mix between Dublin and London’s hipster cafes, a family-run restaurant and a slightly intimidating interior design shop. The latter observation is very biased and personal, because for some reason I felt slightly out of place: I am not glamorous nor trendy.
I was of the impression that on the day of my visit the front of house was a bit cliquey and shared in-jokes. In my opinion that friendliness wasn’t somehow shared as much with the punters. You know that feeling when you were in school and you had the cool kids on one side and then there were you and your mates? That.
I have absolutely loved the food and I am always happy to leave a place in a food coma. I thought the dishes were original, interesting and appetising. Just like when I dined at The Vintage Kitchen in Dublin, I had the privilege of sitting next to the toilets but also next to the kitchen, so I could see the chefs in action, which is always awesome. The food gave me a homely, warm and fuzzy feeling; the venue slightly less so.