Review: 'The generosity of the main courses in Kai took us by surprise'
Kai, Sea Road, Galway. (091) 526 003
It was the truffle that did it. I'd been meaning to visit Kai for months, as I had fond memories of a particularly good lunch there a couple of years back (a fish-finger sandwich made with ling and excellent homemade tartare sauce). But I had never been for dinner, and somehow that plan kept getting put on the long finger.
There are so many new restaurants opening these days that it's hard to get around to all of them, let alone return to the places that have been quietly getting on with their business for years. And then I was scrolling through Instagram and spotted it: one of the biggest, boldest black truffles I'd ever seen. And it had just arrived back from Italy straight into the kitchen at Kai, thanks to Ryanair and a friend of the kitchen porter. That was on a Sunday, and by Monday afternoon, I was in the car heading west, hoping that there would be some left for me.
Our booking was for 6.30pm, the start of dinner service, and while we sat in the car outside, we witnessed a parade of enthusiastic early diners trying to gain entry, and forming a queue outside. By seven o'clock the restaurant was full, not bad going for a grey Monday in early July in a restaurant that doesn't offer an early-bird option. The other customers were a mix of tourists and locals, and I know that Kai has a loyal regular customer base.
I started with a non-alcoholic organic Drivers Cider from Highbank Orchards - very good, a more grown-up version of Cidona - while my daughter tried the special tipple of the day, a gooseberry and plum margarita, pretty as a picture and nicely balanced between sour and sweet, with a rim of local Inishbofin sea salt. She liked it so much that she had a second.
'Black Truffle + Cloonconra + Fennel' appeared as the first starter on the menu, so we had made it in time. Phew! The dish was ever so slightly disappointing, though - perhaps the truffle wasn't as good as it looked in that photo?
The fennel had been cut into fine slivers, blanched, dressed and topped with a few slivers of truffle, which was marinated in balsamic and olive oil. Alongside was a little wedge of lovely organic raw-milk cheese from James Gannon's farm in Co Roscommon. Cloonconra is made with the milk of rare-breed Irish moiled cattle, and Gannon's is the only dairy herd of the breed in the world. We thought the truffle element of the dish under-powered, and that the balsamic overwhelmed. A ceviche of red mullet, avocado and lime, on the other hand, was vibrant, summery and full of oomph.
The starters were delicate in terms of portion-size, so the generosity of the main courses took us by surprise. Two large tranches of turbot sat atop a melange of asparagus, yellow courgette and black olives, with an almond aioli by way of sauce. In most restaurants, you would get only one piece of fish, and it mightn't be as big as either of the pieces here. The turbot was cooked perfectly, and the aioli worked well by way of contrast.
Lamb rack chops with panzanella and hummus was another enormous helping. We are used to seeing delicate little lamb chops trimmed of most of their fat in restaurants, whereas here, the dish comprised three huge chops with all their fat.
The chops had been rubbed and marinated with Middle Eastern flavours and cooked on the rare side of medium-rare. They were super-flavoursome with a fine hit of chilli. The hummus was a sympathetic partner, as were the fabulous tomatoes in the panzanella (an Italian bread and tomato salad that's made when tomatoes are in peak season), which also featured cucumber, red onion, flat-leaf parsley and more black olives. The presentation of both dishes was rustic, and we'd have preferred that the olives be flagged in the menu descriptions, or be less prominent.
A gooseberry, elderflower and matcha trifle was pretty to look at, but a dull concoction - I'm not convinced that matcha has any place in desserts, despite its lovely colour. Peaches with dulce de leche and almond also disappointed. The peaches were slightly dehydrated, lacking in flavour, and served cold, alongside a huge dollop of dulce de leche, whipped cream, and a buttery biscuit crumb that should have been toasted for crunch and texture. The dish would have been better if the peaches were warm and caramelised (which would, in turn, have softened the caramel), and served with a vanilla ice cream.
Head chef Jess Murphy wasn't in the kitchen on the night of our visit. Shocking, I know - even chefs get the night off sometimes. Our bill, with a couple of double espressos and a glass of Montepulciano, came to €126.50 before service, which was efficient and personable. Kai is definitely one for the list if you're heading to Galway.
7/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
A bowl of Green Goddess soup — celery, leeks, wild garlic and asparagus — with brown bread is €5.50 at lunchtime.
ON A BLOW OUT
If you kicked off with a Bertha’s Floral & Thyme G&T, followed by Connemara Crab, Trout Roe and Sweetcorn, the Brady’s Strip Steak with Young Buck Butter and Boozy Onions, the Cherry Bomb Ice Cream Sundae, and a bottle of Amarone (€72), the bill for two would come to €185 before water, coffee or service.
THE HIGH POINT
Relaxed atmosphere, great staff, full-on flavours.
THE LOW POINT
Desserts were disappointing.
Whispers from the gastronomicon
The number of restaurants in the area around Camden Street continues to increase by the week. The latest arrivals include the Sova Food Vegan Butcher on Pleasants Street, which has found a permanent home after popping up in Martcade in Rathmines and at Yoga Hub’s Happy Food Café, and Pallet Pizza on Camden Street itself, from the team behind Camden Kitchen, where the thin-crust pizzas and homemade gelato are pulling in the crowds. Meanwhile in Westport, there are good reports of the new tapas menu at La Farina.