Following the opening of Kai Smokehouse in January, Joanna Blythman visited the new Gourock restaurant to review its offering.
Tragedy awaits us at Kai Smokehouse: it has run out of brisket! This hickory wood-smoked cut is Kai’s signature dish.
Rave reviews are all over social media. The bad news isn’t delivered with one brutal blow. “There might be one portion left. I’ll check.”
This last-minute raising of hopes makes the outcome even harsher. We’ve only just got over our disappointment when we witness the people at the next table going through the same cruel ritual.
Not for nothing is Kai’s slogan: “We cook low and slow – when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
It’s obviously something special, the brisket. It’s the reason why we’re here in Gourock, a place I’ve only heard of and never visited until now. And I’m not complaining.
Previously I had no mental picture of this town; now I do, a flattering one. Approaching it on a dark evening, it looks to me (admittedly, I’m myopic) like a Scottish Bay of Naples, all it lights twinkling. Gourock, I discover, has a bigger lure even than the brisket, a historical saltwater lido, built in 1909, that’s public, and – the icing on the seaside cake – heated to 29 degrees!
I’ll be coming back here for definite. And Kai, with its duck egg white walls, soft mosaic tiles, and affable vibe, feels like a good address to know.
The pleasant waiter who broke the bad tidings to us as gently as possible does a good job of talking us through the menu: Texas-style barbecue – brisket, ribs and pulled pork burgers et al. – with Scottish seafood.
“Pork belly candy?” Now that piques my curiosity. It turns out to be one of the best £5.50 worth you’re ever likely to encounter, hunks of crisp-skinned, still-juicy flesh and fat in a smoky, sweet, vinegary sauce, with a cooling salad – mango, kiwi, cucumber, red pepper, baby chard – to sooth its piquancy.
It takes no prisoners with the tastebuds, but I infinitely prefer it to the risotto balls filled with spinach, mushroom, and Gruyère; they have a bad chip pan smell about them.
This is an anarchic meal; we’re eating things in an odd, unbalanced combination, but it’s quite fun. Cornbread, made with mature cheese, green Jalapenos, honey, and thyme is such a scene-stealer, although it’s technically a side order. It’s just so easy to like that gritty, crusty, cornmeal texture with its sweetly fragrant chilli hit.
On to the pulled pork with firecracker sauce, which is not my thing. To me, it’s just mushy strands of pre-cooked meat moistened in a sauce. I’d rather do my own pulling off the bone, but then the whole US “pulled” thing is not my bag. The coleslaw that comes with it is fine, but we steer clear of the mountain of thoroughly undistinguished chips. That overdue oil change smell intrudes again.
Big meaty offerings follow a formula at Kai – coleslaw, side salad, chips – which makes them filling and decent value for money. Personally, I could do without the sidekick frills and just concentrate on the dry rub barbecue ribs, which are ace, a beautifully dry, crusted surface with a relatively unobtrusive residual chilli heat, almost dissolving fat, meat that slips off the bone effortlessly.
The chef, apparently a lapsed vegetarian – is apologising to the women at the next table for the absence of any vegan dessert. How does a vegetarian transition to carnivore-centric omnivorism? This would be a life story worth hearing.
We, meanwhile, are lapping up the waffles, which at Kai, are homemade, another sign of this establishment’s good intentions. There are four of them, biscuity bronze, squidgy inside, like Scottish drop scones. Voluminous whipped cream invades their cuboid recesses. The only bum note here is that the “seasonal fruit” – strawberries – have as much taste as a cucumber and to add insult to injury, taste as though they’ve been cut up with a knife recently used to slice onion or garlic.
Key lime cheesecake wouldn’t offend anyone, but could only be improved by the addition of a load more lime juice and zest.
Kai has its strengths. I’ll be back for the brisket, with a swimsuit in my bag.
Kai Smokehouse, 19 Kempock Street, Gourock 01475 632 777
Value for money: 8/10
This review appeared in The Sunday Herald by Joanna Blythman – images by Kirsty Anderson.