When it opened in 1991, JoJo became chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s first restaurant as chef and co-owner, along with Phil Suarez. In fact, “Jo Jo” was the chef’s childhood nickname. Like many bistros of its day, it was situated in the ground and parlor floors of an elegant East Side townhouse. Like an election map, a series of small dining rooms were gerrymandered around the premises. Even though the chef was Alsatian, the décor was pure Parisian, with red banquettes, beveled mirrors, and walls so yellowish they might have been discolored by cigarette smoke.
The menu reflected the Paris of 30 years ago, when French cooking was under the influence of ’60s nouvelle cuisine and ’70s cuisine minceur. Both sought to lighten traditional cooking by multiplying vegetables, while avoiding heavy dairy fats. Certainly, the French habit of cooking vegetables to death disappeared, and these movements influenced our contemporary ideas about fresh, seasonal produce and healthful cooking.
How did these ideas inform JoJo’s menu? In the early ’90s, Times critic Bryan Miller gave it three stars, while praising the goat cheese in a puddle of arugula water and tuna tartare — then an oddity — on a concise menu that ran to only six apps and six entrees. He praised the shrimp in carrot juice laced with Thai chiles, a dish that was a harbinger of his next restaurant, Vong, which emphasized Southeast Asian flavors and French techniques.
When Ruth Reichl came early in 1996 she also gave it three stars, but a begrudging three stars based on the brilliance of the food, while deploring the crowded premises and bad service. She begins her review, “Walking into Jo Jo can be a nightmare,” but goes on to praise the chicken with ginger and green olives in coriander juice, and an app called 27 vegetables, of which she said: “It sounded like a bore, one of those dishes invented for anorexic models. Wrong again: this was an ode to the garden.”
JoJo cruised along for nearly two decades as it gradually became a footnote to a burgeoning Vongerichten empire, finally closing for a yearlong renovation and reopening not long ago. The alterations were profound. Instead of small tables jammed close together, there was now a sense of space. The upstairs had been turned into a loft, with bare brick whitewashed walls, a communal table, pale furniture, planked wood accents, and black and white art that was slightly risqué. “This place now seems downtown-ey,” noted my companion.
The menu remains spare. In line with the small plate movement, there are now nine apps instead of six, but the six mains remain, half meat, half fish. For the nostalgic, an addendum offers a couple of dishes from the old menu each night, so diners can still try the chicken with olives and ginger, as well as the tuna tartare. After drinks downstairs at the three-stool bar, which provides an ankle-level view of pedestrians passing on East 64th Street, we ascended to a corner table on the second floor.
Vongerichten himself was bustling about greeting guests, dressed in chef’s whites and still youthfully winsome at 60. He sat down at a communal table of fellow Frenchmen, and they drank several toasts and took selfies. First to hit our table was a warm grain salad ($16) that had been recommended by the bartender, featuring mushrooms, a green chile dressing, and (what else?) delicata squash. Too much of the salad was arugula. More impressive was a shallow bowl of peekytoe crab dumplings in a Meyer lemon broth. It had a sunny flavor that was capable of dispelling the wintry chill outside.
Later a tuna tartare ($19) arrived in lettuce cups flavored with shiso. While the earlier version of the restaurant had a few Thai touches, the new menu has taken the sentiment Pan-Asian. The apps seemed more substantial than they’d been when I’d visited 15 years ago, but just as assertive. The entrees hedged on this promise, offering full blown plates more in a comfort food vein. The entree described as “crispy skin organic chicken, lemon and olive oil potatoes, fried onions, and potato skin” ($25), was standard bistro fare these days, with sharp flavor notes in a Provencale vein.
A filet of skin-on black sea bass heaped with mushrooms swam in an herbal broth with a sandbar of mashed potatoes. It provoked a sigh of pleasure when it arrived, and another after every last morsel was scraped up and the broth consumed. After that came a couple of desserts — said by the waiter to have been made by the chef himself — including a puck of bread pudding with crème fraiche, and a pavlova topped with passion fruit seeds that looked like little eyes.
It’s clear that Vongerichten is at least partly on a nostalgia trip here, offering a few greatest hits from early in his career, but also marking a milestone in how far he’s come by making the menu reflect the current breadth of his ideas. He was clearly delighted at being in a tiny restaurant again, where distance from his guests can be measured in feet, and he can inspect every entrée served.
JoJo is certainly worth a visit, and the prices are slightly less than you might expect for food this good from one of the city’s most notable chefs.