A revolution in affordable, delicious food

Sat, Jul 9, 2011, 01:00

Kai in Galway makes the most of local ingredients and recycled materials, writes CATHERINE CLEARY

LET’S CALL IT the wet feet test. Can you enjoy lunch when you have squelched through the rain in sandals to eat it? I leave a sunny Dublin for Galway and the city is doing rain like only Galway can. We’ve scurried from the railway station under a single umbrella, pausing only in a local pub for directions. But things are looking up. A warm, nutty bread smell is in the air in this hobbity lair and five simple things are written on a chalkboard beneath a glass roof.

I’m at Kai (the Maori word for food), a small restaurant on Sea Road in Galway city. This is the new venture of New Zealand chef Jess Murphy, her first solo run as a restaurateur. I am her stalker, having eaten a great meal in Bar Eight in Galway weeks after she left to set up this place. And now I’m catching up with her here.

This stretch of the Sea Road is a charity shop kind of neighbourhood. And the shabby chic vibe is inside the small, green-painted place in spades as we settle into a bench and chair nook at the glass-roofed end of the restaurant. A former florist’s shop, the place is now decked out with an array of recycled materials, giving it a clever Wombles-meets-Bilbo Baggins finish. Huge rusting lampshades hang over the cake bar. These are planters welded by Murphy’s husband David, an engineer who is also the front-of-house man. Glass jars are tied over the multiple lightbulbs hanging from the glass roof. Our booth is clad in scaffolding planks beneath a wall lined with old lengths of timber. The scaffolding planks (there’s a natural glut of them on the market at a fiver each, apparently) also make up a shelving unit behind the bar made of railway sleepers.

We get some herbal teas to warm away the dampness. “Jess’s blossom tea” is a summery blend of lime flower, lavender, chamomile and elderflower, and I go for Women’s Tea – raspberry, dandelion leaf and lady’s mantle.

Then the food. My summer soup with two slices of still-warm bread does what all great soups should do: blend simple ingredients into a bowl of flavour, without blurring the individual notes. This one has a generous dollop of lovage on top of a thick and slightly spicy soup with carrot, celery and a tasty base note of great stock.

Juliana’s chicken salad is a fantastic take on this lunch staple. Instead of the anemic white meat you typically find scattered on iceberg leaves, this one has meat that was cooked on the bone and then taken off in chunks and browned to dial up the flavour another notch. The final ingredient is perfectly browned and finger-licking delicious chunks of skin.

Underneath it, the salad ingredients are a lesson in care and seasonality. There’s a radish with its leaves still on, fresh fennel shards, purple feathery mizuna leaves, gorgeously marbled tomatoes (miles from the flavourless water blisters sold by supermarkets), toasted almonds and some of the nicest meaty green olives either of us have ever tasted. It’s dressed with a tangy dill and lovage dressing that is stupendous.

My potato and pea curry has a garnish of a lavender-coloured lettuce leaf fringed in green and a deep orange spiced yoghurt dressing – and is gorgeous. These locally-grown leaves are so much more impressive than any cheffy touches; Mother Nature pulling out all the stops, as opposed to a chef pulling out the squeezy bottle.

I have a twinge of plate envy for Juliana’s salad as my curry is a little soupy to have after soup. But that’s my only regret.

The other astounding thing about these dishes is their price. My curry is €8. Juliana’s salad is €9.50 and is, she says, “one of the nicest plates of food I’ve had in a long time”. Dinner (served as beginnings, middles and ends) is priced at between €7 for a starter and €25 for a main.

We round off with a large slab of apple cake (€4.50) that comes with a mascarpone honey drizzled frosting with fresh raspberries. And I get two fat brown dates split and stuffed with dark chocolate and nuts (€1.50 each), which are as gorgeous as they sound. Two glasses of Moscato d’Asti (€7) make the perfect accompaniment – chilled and pleasant without being too cloying as a dessert wine.

There’s a huge print of Murphy’s great grandmother on the wall of her restaurant. The half-Tyrone, half-Maori woman looks straight at the camera in ceremonial fur robes and jewellery. It’s startlingly modern for a 101-year-old photograph, a convergence of worlds and times and cultures.

The wet feet are forgotten and it’s been worth it to come and eat such fantastic food. Selfishly, I wish Murphy lived and cooked in Dublin. Her cooking shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is. She takes some of the best ingredients that Irish soil and sea have to offer, cooks them brilliantly and has now set them in a quirky, friendly space at great prices. Go there. Eat well. But make sure to wear stout shoes.

Lunch for two with two teas and two glasses of Moscato came to €49.50.


Kai Cafe and Restaurant

Sea Road, Galway, tel: 091-526003, kaicaferestaurant.com

Facilities: Basic, but decorated with fresh pink peonies the day we visited

Wheelchair access: Yes

Music: Groovy and low in volume

Food Provenance: Plenty of good names on the website including Lough Boora Farm vegetables, Knocklara sheep’s cheese, fish from Gannet, Galway Bay and Burren and Connemara Smokehouses

Coeliac friendly? No specific dishes but plenty are wheat-free

A howl of pain came from Rathmines recently in the form of an e-mail at the suggestion that there is no local wine shop stocking chilled white wine for the BYOB restaurant Little Jerusalem. Deveney’s Off Licence has not one but three wine fridges and regularly gets patrons from Little Jerusalem choosing from their selection, according to manager Niamh O’Callaghan. So now you know. Deveney’s Off Licence, 16 Upper Rathmines Road, Dublin 6