kai cafe + restaurant, Galway

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  • kai cafe + restaurant

Jessica Murphy reminds me of Bernadette O'Shea, the legendary creator of Sligo's greatest-ever restaurant, Truffles.

Ms Murphy, like Ms O'Shea, is bolshie, brash, and brilliant. She is single-minded to an almost unimaginable degree. And now, having cheffed around Galway for a while as she made a reputation as a singular, creative cook, she has her own restaurant, Kai, where she can show just what she wants to do.

Kai is in the western end of Galway city, and it used to be the fine Budding Café, that most-curious mix of flower shop and tea rooms. Now, it's a gorgeous space, roughly pointed stone, a wall made out of wooden remnants from Galway city's last thatched cottage, a glass ceiling that showcases the spire of the next-door church, an old ladder where the day's newspapers are hoisted. The French, as ever, have the word to describe it: bricolage.

The menu offers five starters, four mains, and five puddings. Jess Murphy may be single-minded, but she is not a didactic cook: what is on the menu is what can be sourced at optimum quality, so we start with razor clams, cooked perfectly with garlic butter and the tenderest samphire, and the Lough Boora farm plate which culls what Tony Garahy has been growing up in the boggy organic soil of Offaly: golden beets roasted to sweet perfection; pickled cucumber; a beetroot dip; carrot ribbons; small, almost-cabbage-like salad leaves; a cute little goats cheese fritter; and little coins of melba toast.

It's vital food, packed with good energy, and it lifts you up to eat it because it's so simple and elemental, a characteristic the main courses followed through on. Megrim is roasted on the bone, and served with fennel and lemon aioli. What you need to know about megrim is that this white sole is the first fish that fishermen eat when out on the boats: it's a superstar understudy of a fish, but it won't be an understudy for much longer. Ms Murphy cooks it so that there is still translucence at the bone: just so.

Hake with clams, homemade chorizo and tomato is a dish of big flavours, with a fair bite of heat coming from the chorizo, sourced from the brilliant Allen brothers of Roscommon's Castlemine Farm. You can't fault this cooking: Ms Murphy nails teach dish, so there is nothing extraneous, everything has what it needs, and no more.

Gorse flower ice cream is served with a glass of moscato, elderflower comes as a sorbet with Highbank Orchard apple syrup and toasted oats, the cheese is Marion Roeneveld's Killeen goat's milk cheese with damson paste and oat cakes, peaches are baked in Prosecco and served with Roger and Brid Fahy's Burren honey ice cream, and Valrhona chocolate is an intense cake paired with black cherry ice cream.

Service, led by Jess's husband, David, is low-key and deadly efficient, that ideal mix. Prices are good, and the room has a gorgeous bohemianism. Kai (it's the Maori term for “food”) is going to be the hottest star on the west coast in 2011.

kai cafe + restaurant, Sea Road, Galway 091 526003, www.kaicaferestaurant.com