Review: Kai Cafe & Restaurant, Galway

23rd April 2013
Pól Ó Conghaile

There’s an art to a good lunch.

Why is it then, that we so often view this humble, middle-of-the-day meal as something to be gotten through – a bit of nosebag, or a window in which to wolf down soup and a sambo – before eating something ‘proper’ later that evening?

Right now, lunch offers some of the best value-for-money in the country.

With claret-swilling corporate expense accounts having dropped off a cliff, and regular punters thinking carefully before frittering away €10 or €12 on a salad, chefs at all levels have had to rethink the ways in which they prepare and present this awkward middle child.

For foodies, the result is a golden opportunity.

A three-course lunch at Mickael Viljanen’s Greenhouse, for example – widely tipped for a Michelin Star this year – is priced at €30. A three-course dinner, on the other hand, costs double that. Other new openings like The Fumbally and Dublin City Food, and stalwarts like Cork’s Farmgate Café, have practically made lunch the new dinner.

Granted, casual menus don’t showcase the full range of a chef’s talents. But they do provide a pretty good indication. Meeting for lunch also tends to lessen the shared wine bills that can end up squeezing moderate and non-drinkers at dinner.

Kai Café + Restaurant is another master of the art.

Set on Galway’s Sea Road, its friendly shopfront opens up into an atmospheric space awash with exposed stone, eclectic chunks of wood and kooky details like framed cans of Minerva mackerel, jam jars over light bulbs, or an old Salter household scale. The rustic, bo-ho air makes you feel at once excited and at ease – the perfect lunch-lover’s habitat.

‘Kai’ is the Maori word for food (chef Jess Murphy is from New Zealand), and the building formerly housed a florist’s – a heritage shining through in splashes of colour in the candleholders, bright chalks and tempting cakes dotted about the place. A large skylight lets in floods of natural light, and frames the church steeple looming overhead.

We visited during the recent Galway Food Festival, and found a short but imaginative menu featuring dishes like Chickpea curry with cucumber and mint yoghurt, an open sandwich of Connemara smoked salmon, and ‘Vinny’s Reuben’ – a pastrami sambo served with melted cheddar, sauerkraut and mustard mayo on focaccia.

I went for the Ortiz tuna salad, which arrived in a crunchy clump of mixed leaves, sharp black olives and roast peppers, with a slice of spongy, seeded brown bread on the side for €11. The leaves were dotted with hidden gems – slices of apple, pomegranate seeds – and topped with a moreish mustard-mayo dressing. It all whipped up into a combo of flavours and textures that made me feel both pleasantly full and righteously healthy.

L ordered the lamb burger, a patty rolling Brady’s lamb, wild garlic and Feta cheese into “the best one I’ve ever had”, as she put it. The burger came with purple slaw and focaccia (which, being coeliac, she swapped for salad). I took a bite, and the crisp, tangy exterior gave way to a moist mix of tender meat, flavoursome herbs and wafty cheese. Yum.

On the side, we shared a parsnip, apple and coconut soup, served with two slices of Paolo’s Brown bread for €5. It had a warming, pomaceous air – both light and filling.

A thick hunk of gluten-free chocolate cake wrapped things up, delivered from a counter weighed down with lemon meringue, apple and blackberry tart and coconut cake. The teas and coffees were on the money too, and the drinks menu is worth a mention for its colourful teas, organic wines and craft beers like Galway Hooker and O’Hara’s.

Lunch is served from 12pm to 3pm, with Sunday brunch regularly seeing queues stretch out the door, I’m told. In the evening, Kai’s menu changes, the prices nudge upwards, and Murphy has more room to manoeuvre… a prospect for which I plan to return.

One final note: I’ve seen reviews criticising Kai for its prices, and on the face of it, €11 for a salad does seem rather high. It’s worth remembering, however, that you can’t fit a restaurant between two slices of bread. €11 pays for everything from the farmer who grew the leaves to the chef who brought them alive, and the ambiance in which they are served.

‘Value’ and ‘cheap’ can be two very different concepts.

The tab:

Lunch for two cost €37.50; tip extra.

The details:

Sea Road, Galway; 091 526003;

This Kai Galway review originally ran in The Irish Examiner.