Seas of change
Recently, we were back in the beautiful Wineport Lodge once again to film the Christmas specials of 'The Restaurant'. By now, you will have seen George Hook and Tom McGurk having their culinary cook-off, which resulted in two very fine meals.
The following morning, I was talking to Gary, the chef from Viewmount House in Longford, about good places to eat in Galway. He suggested Kai Café for lunch.
These days, the new motorway means that a trip from Athlone to Galway is just about an hour, an easy enough drive. So with a light breakfast under my belt, I set off for Galway and lunch. I found Kai on Sea Road without any difficulty, and even found a parking place right outside.
Inside Kai, I found a busy little café with a homely atmosphere. There is a variety of table sizes and shapes, some large, some small, and the larger ones are often shared, which works well enough given the casual ambience.
I found myself sharing a table with a friendly lady from Galway, so even though I was lunching alone, I had good company while I ate.
There's not a lot of point in me going through the menu that I was handed on the day, as the menu changes frequently, reflecting what's in season and what's good in the markets. But what I can tell you is that there are imaginative dishes on offer, with interesting combinations of flavours.
You might find Connemara potted crab, hake with chorizo and mussels, polenta with courgette flowers or slip sole with fennel and saffron -- all of which are dishes that have been on the menu.
I took a little time to look at the wine list, but since I was driving back to Dublin after lunch, it was more of an academic exercise. It's one of those wine lists that goes from around €20 to the upper €20s and then the €30s very quickly, which, given the casual café feel of the place, seems a little wrong.
Put another way, I'd be unlikely to order a €49 wine in such casual surroundings. I felt that a wine list with more wines in the lower €20s would have been more appropriate, and probably more in line with customers' expectations.
I ordered a bottle of mineral water, which was out of stock, so instead I got two glasses of water.
At the far end of the dining room is an open hatch where you can see the kitchen at work. Above the hatch are all the day's specials on a board and two of them caught my eye at once: a soup of carrot and red peppers and the fish of the day, megrim.
In case that means nothing to you, megrim is one of the Atlantic flatfish, with a narrower body than other flatfish. I ordered it because I'd much rather have a free-ranging, wild fish than a more up-market farmed fish -- such as sea bass or salmon.
When a fish comes directly from the sea, it may not have the tag 'organic' attached to it, but in the real sense of the word, that's exactly what it is.
A generous portion of soup arrived for me with some homemade brown bread and I enjoyed it a lot. It was a cold day and a warming bowl of tasty soup was exactly what the frame required. The taste of the soup was predominantly that of red pepper, which is a taste I like, so even though I didn't intend to, I finished every last drop.
The main course arrived as a very well-filled plate. Given that it was priced at €8.50, there was a lot there.
There were two fillets of megrim served on a bed of mash, a small pot of tartare sauce and a mixed salad with a lot of different leaves, making a multi-coloured plateful.
I was also happy to find that the salad had been nicely dressed with a decent oil.
To my taste, the fish was overcooked, but I'm also aware that the way it was cooked would have pleased most people.
I know that when it comes to fish, I'm in the minority when I want it lightly cooked. I believe that fish deteriorates the more it's cooked.
Maybe the Japanese have it right with sashimi, when the fish is eaten raw.
Being on your own does mean that it's a lot easier to look around the room and see what's happening at other tables. I can tell you that not only did I get very good service, so did everyone else that I could see.
It was the kind of service that makes Irish hospitality what it is -- not just efficient, but also smiley and friendly.
In truth these two dishes meant that my appetite was well sated.
However, in the spirit of investigating further what Kai had to offer, I chose a dessert. It was a kind of brownie cake with a soft icing on top and it came with a few raspberries and thick cream.
As I said, I wasn't in the least hungry, but even if I had been, I doubt that I would have finished it. It was a large slice and, even adding some cream to each forkful, I found the cake quite dry.
It was the last thing that I ordered that gave me the biggest surprise. As usual, I asked for an espresso and, as usual, my expectations were decidedly low.
I was handed one of the best espressos I've had in the past few years -- a thick crema atop it, with a deep and rich flavour that lasted long after I'd finished the last drop.
That's exactly what I'd like to get whenever I order an espresso, but sadly it doesn't often happen.
My bill came to €24.50, and I set off for Dublin a happy man.