I’M A SUCKER for a girl that makes me laugh. Laughter is not something we readily associate with eating out, but cooking needs wit as well as skill and intelligence.
Heston Blumenthal has his snail porridge, Rene Redzepi serves live ants and edible dirt, and the Roca brothers have a dish of food you drink and wine you eat. Jess Murphy’s food always makes me smile. Sometimes because it is witty and smart, and sometimes because it is so pleasurable.
‘Kai’ is the Maori word for food and New Zealander Jess and her Irish husband, David, opened their restaurant in 2011, with a simple formula — high-quality produce, preferably organic or wild, sourced locally and cooked intelligently. I visited on a damp Thursday last month, and found the menu satisfyingly logical, with five provocative choices in each section, from ‘Tipple’ to ‘Starters’ to ‘Supper’ and ‘Puddings’.
The ‘Tipple’ section is an innovation that other chefs should copy, especially now that foraging and fermenting are mainstream.
A Tanqueray gin with American Village Quinine Syrup and tonic, plus a Damson Bellini, woke up our palates nicely — and typified what was to come. Take a classic and throw some Galway complication at it, mix it up, and watch the smiles appear on people’s faces.
This was my first visit to Kai, but I had been thoroughly charmed by a pop-up Jess did at 3FE coffee shop, in Dublin, last spring.
She served dishes like Sipsmith Gin-infused John Dory sashimi with pickled dillisk, dandelion and parsley cake and goat’s cheese and coffee with dates. Every dish sang, but the diva was the beautifully simple centrepiece of lobster tails with burnt butter and organic Orla potatoes, cooked in seawater — a thing of beauty.
More recently, at the Five Corners Feast, following Catherine Cleary’s ‘Appetite Talks’, in Smock Alley, Jess cooked with four other well-known chefs and stole the show with her pigeon in buckfast (yes, the infamous tonic wine so beloved of Galway’s student population). The sweet, earthy pigeon knitted into the caramel-and-coffee bucky flavours, which were, in turn, lifted with sorrel, pickled blackberries and hazelnuts — a perfect middle course served between smoked carrots and braised beef.
But back to Kai itself and difficult choices. For our wine, I dithered between a French picpoul and a Galician albariño, but David helpfully gave me a gentle shove over the border, into Portugal, towards the Muros Antigos Alvarino (fairly priced at €32).
I doubt there was a more suitable wine on the list, as this was packed with peaches and freshness and worked with every course that followed.
Clam and Orla potato soup managed the neat trick of being creamy, while also tasting clean, thanks to good use of fennel, and, of course, contrasted nicely with the sweet, flesh-and-iodine background flavours in the clams.
Rillette of rabbit was also richer than you would expect from a bunny and contrasted nicely with some pickle and cucumber.
Wild Clare pheasant and Chanterelle casserole had a gloriously old-school bread sauce and firm-grilled Monkfish had sweet pumpkin and aioli to round out its flavours. The note-perfect Orla potatoes on the side almost overshadowed everything and we fought over them.
In Ireland, there is absolutely no excuse for not getting the spuds right, yet so few chefs here even bother trying. Jess’s dedication to Orla could be expected, given how suited they are to organic farming, but they also taste fantastic, especially the way she cooks them — she should give lessons.
Ginger cake and quince trifle was an old-school dessert with a twist, and my feijoa ice cream had a fine balance of creamy, sweet fruit flavours, mixed with acidity, and I’m not surprised Galway’s population of New Zealanders (some playing rugby for Connacht) descends on Kai for its fix, when feijoa fruit is in season.
So, as you can tell by now, I’m a fan, and I’m already looking forward to my next visit. There is a warmth and generosity here, not just in the cooking and the welcome, but even in the artful bare walls and foraged furniture and objets d’art. We left smiling; you will, too.
Dinner for two with two pre-dinner drinks, one bottle of wine, two starters, two mains and two desserts — €133.50 (excluding tip).
Restaurant: Tuesday to Saturday 6.30-10.30pm; Café: Monday to Friday 9.30-12 noon, Saturday-Sunday 12-3pm.
Food – 8/10
Service – 9/10
Drink – 8/10
Ambience – 8/10
Value – 8/10
Creative, witty, and intelligent cooking of perfectly sourced ingredients in a buzzy warm atmosphere.