Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Fond Farewell to Jojo

New Year's Eve tends to be a festive celebratory night for most people — Maggie and I usually celebrate by staying home, watching movies, and falling asleep on the couch minutes before midnight. Par-tay! This year was a bit different as we had to attend a going away party of sorts. Shortly after we moved back to the Bay Area we discovered that one of our very favorite restaurants, Jojo in Oakland, was closing at the end of the year. The restaurant industry has been hit hard by the recession and many restaurants, especially high-end ones, are having tough times getting diners through the door, and when diners do come in, they're ordering more modestly. The San Francisco Chronicle recently ran an article on the effect of the economy on local restaurants featuring Jojo, Michael Mina, and other local eateries hard hit by the economy. The San Francisco Bay Area is such a food-centric place, one might think that restaurants here would fare better, but, perhaps exacerbated by the high density of restaurants in the area, supply is simply outstretching the current demand.

Jojo was a very special place for us, and the owners Curt and Mary Jo and the staff have become friends with us over the years, so it was especially hard to see it go and we had to go toast them farewell on their final night. One of our very first dates was at Jojo — it was my birthday and Maggie wanted to take me somewhere nice, so I suggested Jojo. We had a fabulous dinner (including a complimentary plate of their delicious homemade pâté de campagne), and we've been going there regularly ever since, and we even held our pre-wedding dinner there for our families.

The open kitchen at Jojo

If you never got the chance to go to Jojo, it's worth describing it briefly to get a sense of the space and the style. Jojo was in a skinny, long storefront next to the Oakland culinary classic BayWolf. While the food was French, the restaurant design and decor was firmly rooted in California, with nods to the many notable restaurants where Mary Jo and Curt had worked and trained, including the legendary Chez Panisse where Mary Jo spent 12 years as a pastry chef, and Oliveto and Zuni Cafe where Curt spent many years. The centerpiece of the restaurant was the open kitchen that occupied a good portion of the already limited floor space. I always loved how the kitchen was right in the middle of things and every patron could see exactly what was going on at any moment — for a chef, this is like a high-wire act: you can't lose your temper, everything must be spotless and impeccably organized, and in the middle of all of the varied demands of cooking, you have to occasionally engage with the audience.

We would always make a point of going to say hi, thanking them for the amazing food (which it always was), and chatting briefly about food or skiing or whatever else was going on. I would feel a bit guilty for dragging them away from their work which is so dependent on precision and perfect timing, but they were always glad to chat and would duck away the second a flat-iron steak needed turning on the grill or a plum galette was ready to emerge from the oven.

Mary Jo hard at work in the kitchen

Mary Jo's baking is simply unmatched: the chocolate souffle cake should go down as one of the culinary wonders of the Western world, both lighter than air and rich and dense at the same time, and her custards always achieved the perfect consistency (plus, how can you beat an orange-anise-vanilla custard?). Back in 2000, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article on Mary Jo and the use of fruit in her baking and included her fruit galette recipe. She learned the recipe for the crust from the legendary Jacques Pépin when he was a guest chef for a week at Chez Panisse, now I've learned it from her (via the newspaper) and I've been using this recipe ever since, and it never fails to look impressive and taste incredible. Whatever they do next, I hope the world (but especially me) will get to continue enjoying her amazing baking.

Curt's cassoulet

Gourmet got it right when they said that Curt's steak frites nearly steals the show - it was so consistently perfect that it was hard not to order this every time. On the final night, Curt made an elaborate cassoulet that included two types of homemade sausage, duck confit, ham, and several large doses of magic fairy dust (or some other ingredient that made it ridiculously delicious). It may not be the most photogenic of foods, but a good cassoulet is hard to beat, especially on a cold winter night.

Maggie and Mary Jo

It's sad to see a place we love go away, particularly under the circumstances and knowing just how much hard work Mary Jo and Curt poured into the place over the years. We are, of course, anxious to see what they go on to do next - but hopefully it'll be after a well deserved rest!

Farewell Jojo!

Andy & Maggie



Steve said...

Wish I had had a chance to try their cassoulet. Cassoulet (when great) is quite possibly one of my favorite things to eat.

The real question I have though; did Mary Jo bake with raisins?

Andy M. said...

Hmm, you know I can't recall having a dessert from her that included raisins. Fresh (unbaked) grapes yes, but no raisins.

Thanks for raisin that point.

Ngiam Tong Boon said...

Hooray for the yummy food at Jojo. I've had many a good meal there as well

It's sad to hear they have to close down. Also sad: Andy's puns...

Steve said...

Some good could come out of this... I read that the Chef de Cuisine from Manressa will likely be opening a place in the Jojo spot.