See below for Jan Moir’s (renowned food critic for the Saturday section of The Daily Telegraph) review of JoJo’s…
Good food smells and an aura of bonhomie fill the air, says Jan Moir…
Just a few feet from our table in JoJo’s, the chef, Nikki Billington, rattles the pots on her small stove. It’s not so much that this is a restaurant with an open kitchen, it’s a kitchen with a tiny bit of restaurant attached.
The cooking range is enclosed by an L-shaped bar, guarded by six tall stools. Elsewhere, four tables provide places for about 20 customers. It is tiny, but the seats are rapidly being filled, even though it’s only 12.45pm on a Thursday. The orders start stacking up.
“Give us a break, guys,” cries the chef, as a ringlet bounces free from her neatly tied ponytail. “This is Monday morning for me, after all.”
JoJo’s is situated on the ground floor of a tall, blue house near the seafront in Whitstable, Kent. Once a garden centre, the small space is now filled with attractive, chunky restaurant furniture made from reclaimed timber and the walls are painted in solvent-free, organic paint.
When JoJo’s is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, it reverts to being Billington’s family kitchen again. Really, the restaurant is her home. She lives upstairs, with her partner and JoJo’s major-domo, Paul.
“Actually, I’m a sparkie by trade,” he says, handing over the menus. He adds: “We haven’t quite got the dips together yet, so lose the hummus and tzatziki.”
“Have you still got the fried sprats,” I say, looking at the specials on the blackboard, which also include grilled langoustines with herb butter.
“Uh, no. They’re last week’s specials. We haven’t got it together to clean the board either,” he says.
It may only be a small restaurant, but JoJo’s has a big, big conscience. Serving a range of Mediterranean mezze and tapas-style dishes, it uses only organic produce, locally sourced if possible. It has just taken non-sustainable cod off the menu and replaced it with haddock – “doing our bit for the environment” – and the 30 or so dishes it serves are very reasonably priced, from £2.50 for marinated olives to £6.50 for cannon of lamb.
There’s a range of good-quality charcuterie, including Tuscan salami with fennel seeds, and elsewhere you can expect the likes of grilled sardines with lemon and black pepper, mussels, Greek salads and Manchego cheese served with candied peppers, plus home-made puds such as mini pavlovas filled with local seasonal fruits and chocolate brownies.
Behind the counter rises the sizzle and rustle of food being cooked, as Billington whisks about with the deftness and dexterity of the professional. She has worked in restaurants in Greece, as the head chef at the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company and as a private chef. A crammed restaurant is no problem.
“Oh God, it’s the Thursday Club,” she cries in mock horror, as four regulars enter. Soon, good food smells begin to fill the air, alongside an aura of bonhomie that’s more elusive to create. At JoJo’s, it’s done effortlessly.
Plates of fresh bread, olives and oil are delivered to the tables and, because the restaurant has no licence, customers rummage about in carrier bags for their bottles of wine. There is a £1 per bottle corkage charge and, for this, Paul will bring you glasses and a corkscrew, if he remembers. S uncorks our bottle of chilled Chablis from the Tesco down the road, while someone from the Thursday Club gets on the mobile.
“Yeah, two red and one white, please,” he says. It could be shirts. It might be poinsettias. But I think, readers, we know what he’s ordering? Getting it delivered to the restaurant? That’s organised. That’s dead classy.
“Calamari, guys,” says the chef to S and me, pushing a platter across the bar.
We’ve got a big tangle of tender squid rings in a lacy batter distinguished by its excellent, crisp flimsiness and a dollop of garlic mayonnaise on the side. Spritz over some lemon juice and, wow, you could not improve on this for freshness and lightness.
Ditto some goujons of haddock in a beer batter that is as frilly and light as tempura and encases fillets of incredible freshness. An earthenware bowl arrives, filled with delicious red chilli peppers stuffed with feta cheese and herbs, with long slivers of hot pickled peppers scattered on top. Simple, but superb.
Luckily, we’ve ordered lots of dishes. Yes, we were warned that the portions were big, and that most diners ordered only two, maximum three, dishes each, but don’t these people know what they’re dealing with? S and I have been up since dawn, yomped up and down the seafront, lost his boomerang, done a little light Christmas shopping, admired the automatic maggot machine in town – tubs of red or white maggots, £2 each – and are now starving.
“Just shout if you change your mind,” says the boss.
Cannon of lamb, the most expensive cut from the eye of the loin, is not what might be expected in such a low-key joint, but it is lightly seared, thinly sliced and served with fresh mint. Perfect. JoJo’s patatas bravas are crunchy roasted spuds in a thick paprika sauce and there is even great style in the way it serves fiocco de spalla: jagged slices of air-cured pork rolled in ground pepper and served on a platter with home-made candied pear that has a fiery, mustard kick.
Oh, what a great lunch we’re having in the blue house down by the sea. It’s easy to become cynical about restaurants lathering on about “sourcing” their “produce” and then serving up the same old standard fare, but that doesn’t happen here. At JoJo’s, what is promised is delivered. It really does have terrific produce and, best of all, it knows exactly what to do with it. Nikki and Paul have attractive, easy-going personalities that make dealing with customers at such close range a breeze; they are clearly much loved.
Apart from the great food, I like their organic, fair-trade vision, their humbling lack of greed and the fact that they make the restaurant work for themselves, as well as their customers. Bookings are taken no more than two weeks in advance and JoJo’s will be closed during the week before Christmas.
Why? “Because we want to have a nice time, too,” they say.
A sanity clause. I love it.
Published: 4th December 2004. © The Daily Telegraph