Our first restaurant review since March 14th: ‘Worth the wait’
After months of home cooking, this is like flying to a place of dizzying choice and flavours
Jess Murphy at Kai Restaurant, in Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
It’s all still here: everything I’d forgotten I missed. Yes, there is a queue, but that’s not unusual on Sea Road in Galway, where Jess Murphy’s Kai has a nine-year tradition of being worth the wait. Two people give up just before we arrive, so after the briefest of waits we’re in.
The first new thing? A cold, sharp-smelling squirt of hand sanitiser and then there it is, the buttery hug (the only permissible kind) that is the smell of a restaurant kitchen at full tilt.
“It always smells like stew in here,” Murphy says when she comes over to say hello. The chef is back in her apron and headscarf, at her stove again. Most of the clientele are young, and happy in a quiet, smiling-widely-at-each-other-over-the-food kind of way rather than a selfies-with-the-staff fashion.
If you look hard through a Covid lens you’ll see the milk and sugar are not on the tables, and the cake display is behind three glass screens bolted on to the counter
One well-loved customer has gone. The family of the Duchess, who used to always take table 1 (the biggest, in the window), gathered there this morning in her memory. In the absence of a normal funeral they were able to sit and swap stories. They brought a picture of her to be hung over her table.
“Welcome back,” a woman says to the server as she slips into her seat to enjoy a plate of flavour and a crisp glass of lunchtime wine.
There is a holiday feel to the beers on the tables, a holiday from the weirdness of the past three months.
Kai has never been a crammed restaurant, so nothing feels very different once we sit down at a generous table for four in the nook under the stairs that is now a table for two. The menu has always been a chalkboard.
If you look hard through a Covid lens you’ll see the milk and sugar are not on the tables, and the cake display is behind three glass screens bolted on to the counter. Nobody is masked, although we have our masks in the bag, in case they’re needed.
After three months of home cooking – the last time The Irish Times published a restaurant review was on March 14th – we’ve reached a bottom-of-the-barrel feeling when it comes to inspiration. So this new eating-out experience feels like culinary flying, the dizzying choices and multiple flavours.
There’s the “How Bazaar” plate, which is a mix of everything from all the tastiest stalls on the hot, dusty, spicy streets of the world. It’s the kind of dish you could try to re-create at home, but by the time you’d made your Madras ketchup and tahini sauce, not to mention whipping the cashews and tasting and testing your almond dukkah, you would have no energy to hand-press the lentil and turmeric koftas and fry them just so.
This is what a talented bunch of restaurant chefs can do. And it is a revelation how spoiled I was before lockdown that this kind of treat ever felt routine.
It’s like sitting in the back of the bus again with all our friends, having been forced to drive it grimly ourselves for so long
My middle son has the fish fingers, Galway’s freshest pollock fried perfectly crisp, no sweating, no chip paper intervening between the fryer and the fork. I drink one too many great coffees; there’s an organic Karma Cola that comes in a glass bottle, making it taste so much better than the plastic ones.
A cinnamon roll to finish and we are left with the feeling that this tentative first step has been calm and soothing. All the things we can do in restaurants: hear a great soundtrack full of music we don’t know, enjoy the feeling of a candle being lit during the day, laugh at each others’ jokes again in the vaguely performative space that restaurants are, a stage where we all enjoy the feeling of childlike expectation that someone else is feeding us.
It’s like sitting in the back of the bus again with all our friends, having been forced to drive it grimly ourselves for so long.
It’s a quiet, hopeful start, the trainer wheels are on and the contact-tracing details are being taken. The tongs are being used to pack away the cakes, and as the lunchtime crowd drifts away there’s the sound of the clear-up and the gentle hiss of sanitising spray as everything is spritzed down and made fresh again.
Lunch for two with drinks and a shared dessert came to €43