If you are wondering where exactly Kai Café and Restaurant is, previously it was the Budding Café and it is now easily spotted at lunchtime by the queues outside for the deli items that are available.
The proprietor/chef Jess Murphy hails originally from New Zealand but has been in Ireland for many years. Murphy worked with Kevin Thornton in his Michelin restaurant, then Ard Bia and of course Bar 8 where she was awarded Best Chef in Connacht this year. Even if you only have a passing interest in good food, I am guessing that you will have heard of Jess as her cooking is excellent and based strictly around whatever is in season and available locally. If you have not sampled her cooking then you have a real treat in store, and if you intend to eat there at a weekend I would urge you to book early as the word is out and you might not get a table.
I arrived at 6.30pm on a Saturday and within 15 minutes several disappointed ‘walk ins’ were told that they were fully booked. The décor is rustic but well done rustic, and the atmosphere feels good immediately. The menu has five starters, five mains, and five desserts, and there is a quite extensive wine list. I chose Connemara crab claws with saffron aioli and some salad leaves, €9, it was a very generous portion of big claws and oh, were they succulent, the difference between fresh claws and defrosted claws is night and day and they were most definitely fresh. The aioli was delicious and I would have been quite happy to spend the evening dipping the delicious crusty white bread into juice. A fellow diner at the next table was starting to attack a very large starter of Irish whole prawns and garlic butter, also €9, I know they are messy but I rate them as better than lobster.
The main courses are priced from €16 to €25. I opted for the pan-fried hake with saffron potatoes and romanesco. Romanesco is a very unusual looking variety of cauliflower, often seen in pictures but seldom on a menu, it had a taste of smoked paprika that gave it a very full on flavour. The hake was a big portion and cooked perfectly with a lovely crispy skin. When one is eating out it is great to see items on the menu that you have never eaten, and one of Jess’s great talents is to be able to take unusual or underrated raw materials and produce wonderful dishes. Some readers may have heard that Jess is a vegetarian and worry that there would not be any meat dish available — do not worry. There is always meat on the menu, starter and mains. The Brady’s strip loin with garlic chestnuts and wilted greens sounded good as did the starter of farm plate with smashed bread beans.
By 7pm the restaurant was packed and it was easy to see that the service matched the food, efficient, courteous, and always there when you need it. The front of house is led by David Murphy, husband of Jess, who keeps a good pair of eyes on all proceedings. Time for dessert, and after careful consideration I chose the roasted peaches with blackcurrant sorbet, €7, although I had been tempted by the champagne rhubarb with ginger crumble and custard, €7. The peaches were melt in the mouth and there was a jus with roasted oats that worked perfectly. The sorbet, homemade I would guess, was also delicious.
Did I have any complaints? No.
Would I go back? Most definitely.
Now that Jess has her own place establishment, I think we can safely add it to our list of the best places to eat in the west of Ireland. For bookings, call (091 ) 526003, or check out www.kaicaferestaurant.com