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Jay Rayner's review of JoJo's in The Observer OM Magazine

Home from Home

A former seaside bedsit has been transformed into a thriving cottage industry. Jay Rayner visits JoJo’s, where eating out feels like staying in.

For a number of years, the ground floor of 209 Tankerton Road, a suburban drag on the outskirts of Whitstable, was a bedsit. The rent would help pay the mortgage while the owner, a sometime chef called Nikki Billington, travelled in Italy and Greece. When Nikki returned home she decided she wanted to run her own restaurant, but that she neither wanted to travel too far to work nor have too many colleagues. She stripped out the bedsit, and installed an L-shaped, wood-topped bar around a simple open kitchen which could quite easily be mistaken for the domestic variety – not least because when the joint isn’t open that’s exactly what it is.

The result is JoJo’s, named after Nikki’s brother, which manages to make the whole fetid business of running restaurants look remarkably straightforward. No million-quid-a-time designers with plans for jewel boxes and understated elegance.

No 500-bin wine lists or ‘cuisine concepts’ melding Albanian flavours with the aesthetic of Kyoto. Just tables, chairs, a kitchen, and one person in it blessed with good taste and an instinct for simplicity. Neither Nikki, nor her other half, Paul Watson, who manages the other side of the bar, has massive business ambitions. ‘I only want enough money to sort my kitchen garden, get some chickens in and do up my bathroom,’ Nikki says.

They are open only Wednesdays to Sundays and are unlicensed, so you can bring your own. They can seat about 25 people at any one time, which means they tend to know their customers by name. The lunchtime I was there I was the only person in the room or on the small terrace they weren’t on first-name terms with. ‘The Greek salad is for Debs,’ Nikki would say, passing dishes across the bar to Paul. ‘And these calamari are the last of Clive’s order. And tell Bob the last of his are coming, too.’ And so on. Nikki Billington is, of course, a total hippy.

The food tends towards Greece, though this is not the sort of place where dogma would sit easily. So there are Italian salamis, patatas bravas from Spain, and a special of moules mariniere on the board. The most expensive dish costs £6.50 and for that you get a lot – in my case some sweet, tender slices of lamb, chargrilled on a skillet and served with tzatziki. A generous plank full of sweet and fiery chorizo came with toast and a little bowl of candied peppers in a sweet syrup. Fresh sardines were introduced only to salt, lemon juice and the heat of the grill. There was crumbly manchego cheese with candied pear, and bowls of Kalamata olives.

And then there was the calamari. Watching Nikki pull the squid from the fridge, slice it up, turn it in the batter and drop it into the fizzing oil, I knew I had to have some. There is no greater encouragement to the appetite than watching someone cook in front of you and knowing that the journey from stove to plate will be but seconds. They were crisp and sweet and rich – everything I knew they would be.

Do I need to tell you I loved JoJo’s? No, I thought not. In a restaurant business in thrall to neophilia, where it is too often the selling point that counts more than the food, it is a joy to strip the whole thing back to just the essentials. And that’s exactly what JoJo’s does.

JoJo’s, 209 Tankerton Road, Whitstable, Kent (01227 274 591). Meal for two, including service, £50

Published: 19 June 2005. © The Observer

Jay Rayner Review

Mr Rayner also mentioned JoJo’s in his round up of the year in The Observer Magazine saying:

“…there has been one very encouraging trend in 2005: a return to first principles. It was there at JoJo’s in Whitstable, where a one woman kitchen brigade chucked superb squid in the deep fat fryer, or at the Goods Shed [one of JoJo’s suppliers] in Canterbury, where the best ingredients received the minimum interference.”

Published: 18 December 2005. © The Observer