Toying with us: The name is French slang for "little toy"--it also means "play, play"--and it's obvious that Jou Jou is where Kevin Taylor (the man) is having some fun. Heaven knows it isn't at Kevin Taylor (the restaurant), the other place Taylor has opened in the Hotel Teatro at 1106 14th Street (see review above) next to the Denver Performing Arts Complex.
Where Kevin Taylor (the restaurant) is stuffy, with stiff-upper-lip-Jeeves service and melancholy food, Jou Jou is a perky bistro that offers flavorful, wallet-friendly food served by happy folks who don't seem to fear for their jobs. Jou Jou's fare is being prepared by Don Gragg, who wowed us when Starfish (300 Fillmore) was still good. The rumor mill has been working overtime on both of Taylor's latest ventures, and reports that Gragg and Taylor had a fight over bearnaise sauce and that Gragg quit have turned out to be greatly exaggerated and untrue, respectively.
Instead, Gragg continues to turn out some impressive dishes at Jou Jou, especially the seafood-based ones, such as the beautiful garlic-brothed bouillabaisse ($14), which was packed with shrimp, clams and mussels and benefited from a healthy dollop of saffron-laced a•oli. Even better, though, was the oven-roasted salmon ($17), which featured a piece of impeccably medium-rare fish perched against a bank of sweet corn and sparked by a piquant bubble of salsa verde.
Jou Jou also is getting a well-deserved reputation for soups and salads, and such well-balanced assemblages as the rocket--also known as arugula--salad ($7) with shaved fennel and truffle oil and the endive, bacon and poached egg salad ($6) demonstrated why. And we thoroughly enjoyed the intensely flavored carrot and curry soup ($5), which came garnished with rich strips of fried fennel root, as well as the husky, beefy onion soup gratinee ($5).
Many of the dishes, such as the salads, that are offered for dinner at Jou Jou are available cheaper for lunch, and the mid-day meal also offers a nice roundup of atypical dishes, such as fried baby langostinos ($7) with fried parsley, the steak tartare ($9), which contained raw filet that wisely had been chopped instead of ground, and the intriguing--and very filling--open ravioli ($9) of asparagus and wild mushrooms, which had been draped in a rich beurre blanc. Dessert was more typical of Taylor, with the decadent chocolate pots de creme ($6) and the lemon pistachio pound cake ($6) knocking our socks off.
Because it's in a hotel, Jou Jou also offers breakfast. It's a nice addition to the slim a.m. pickin's downtown, with such well-made classics as the eggs Benedict ($9) using not-too-salty Bretonne ham and grilled sourdough, and the French toast ($8) made with brioche. The crammed-together downstairs dining area made our morning meal feel like dawn at a Paris cafe--good coffee in the cafe au lait ($2.50) added to the sensation--and it was also good eavesdropping territory.
But most people are trying to use Jou Jou as a pre-theater place, and some pacing problems with multiple courses made that dicey for us on one visit. Also, for a more intimate meal, be sure to make reservations so you can sit up on the mezzanine level, which has the same teeny tables as downstairs but more space between them. Post-theater, though, was fabulous, with a nice atmosphere for drinks and dessert.
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Open and shut cases: The phone has been disconnected at La Costa (278 South Downing), which had been that neighborhood's only Mexican possibility, and Ed Dee's Island Killer Shrimp (1180 South Parker Road) is gone, too. And microbrew-and-pizza fans in Littleton have lost the Columbine Mill Brewery & Pizza Company (5798 South Rapp Street).
Contrary to appearances, however, the new sign at what had been Ranelle's (1313 East Sixth Avenue) does not mean the little Northern Italian eatery has changed hands again. Instead, owners GYnter and Marie Nussbaumer have renamed the place Merano after a Northern Italian town in the Venezia Tridentina region. The name change is to celebrate three years since the Nussbaumers bought the eatery from original owner Ranelle Gregory, who had opened the spot in 1992. Nothing else about the place has changed, though, including the great tiramisu.
From the heart: Diners who flocked to the restaurants that participated in this year's Dining Out For Life fundraiser for Project Angel Heart, which provides meals to people living with AIDS, should feel very good: The event raised its highest amount yet, with conservative estimates putting the total at well over $90,000.