Unexpectedly good Indian food in an unusual setting.
On a recent trip to the Outer Hebrides, I read about Café Kisimul in my guidebook. The author devoted several paragraphs to the story of this utterly delightful little restaurant. He told the story of Rohail and Pauline Bari, who moved to Barra from Glasgow in 2002. After hosting hugely popular curry nights for the locals, they were persuaded to open the café. When the guidebook was written in 2017, Kisimul was described as Scotland’s best curry house, winning the Scottish division of the 2010 Tiffin Cup, and achieving runner-up in the UK finals.
I’ll admit I was sceptical. We’re from Birmingham and have access to some of the most authentic, tastiest Asian food in the UK. A tiny café, in a tiny town, on a tiny, remote Hebridean island, the best curry house in Scotland? Really? Besides, sadly Rohail died in 2015, leaving his son, Harris, to pick up the mantle. Would it still be there? Would it still be as good?
We ended our own recent Hebridean adventure in Barra, arriving at Castlebay on Saturday to catch the ferry to Oban on the Monday morning after a visit to Vatersay on the Sunday. We were booked into the Castlebay Hotel for two nights. As soon as we arrived, late in the afternoon after driving down from Harris, we went for a wander to see if we could find the café.
It didn’t take long. Castlebay is tiny. Literally, a couple of small hotels with bars and restaurants, and a couple of cafes, Kisimul being one of these. It was about a minutes’ walk from our hotel and it was quickly apparent that it was the only place to eat, other than one of the hotels. We decided to go for it.
They have two sittings every night except Sunday, at 6pm and 8pm. On Sundays, they are 5.30pm and 7.30pm. We opted for 6, as we would have had to share a table if we ate at 8. However, after discovering we could watch Wasps v Saracens in our hotel bar, we moved our booking to 8pm, accepting that we would have to share.
Kisimul Café is on the main street in Castlebay overlooking the bay and its namesake, Kisimul Castle. Yes, I thought Kisimul was an Asian sounding name too. The castle gets its name from the Gaelic ciosamul meaning “castle island”.
Inside, it is cosy and bright with seating for around 30 diners. The staff are welcoming and friendly. As well as the Indian dishes, it offers a few seafood and pasta options for those who don’t fancy a curry. Prices are average for the Hebrides, which tends to be little more expensive than the mainland for obvious reasons. The Indian menu offers everything you would expect from a decent curry house but with a unique Hebridean twist. There is a distinctively fishy theme and most of the meat is locally bred.
We particularly enjoyed the hand-dived scallop pakoras and the slow cooked Hebridean lamb Saag, washed down with a pint of Skye Gold. The fish was freshly caught, the meat succulent and tender, and the spicing perfect. The table sharing experience worked surprisingly well. After a slightly awkward start, we were enjoying the company of our fellow diners so much that we were the last to leave. The restaurant was empty and the staff politely clearing up around us, when we realised, we ought to be on our way!
Sadly, the Castlebay Hotel did not live up to expectations. Despite it being one of the most expensive places we stayed on our trip, the rooms were very average and the whole place in need of a lick of paint and a good clean! The lack of accommodation in the area had clearly resulted in a degree of complacency. It was saved only by the receptionist who, even though she seemed to be on duty 24/1, was constantly smiling and always happy to help.
Fortunately, despite an even greater paucity of decent places to eat, Kisimul Café has not succumbed to a similar temptation to let standards drop. We decided to forego eating at our hotel on the Sunday night and booked into Kisimul again. When we apologetically explained this to the Castlebay receptionist she was understanding, verging on encouraging, even recommending things to try from the menu!
It’s unlikely that you will ever be just “passing through” Barra and Castlebay, but it is often a starting or finishing destination on a tour of the Hebrides. Please don’t visit Castlebay without eating at Kisimul Café. You really will be missing a treat! We were lucky to get tables on two consecutive nights as it was early in the tourist season. We would definitely recommend booking in advance.
Overall Value 5/5