In our travels we often see many of the same concepts for new restaurants. The terms “New American”, “upscale Italian”, and “gastro pub” specifically come to mind. That is not to say that those concepts do not often turn out to be amazing new spots, but it is always refreshing to see restaurateurs and chefs breaking the mold. Last night, we ventured out of our normal Fairfield County area and headed up the coast into New Haven County. There are many great beach towns in the suburbs east of New Haven and Branford is certainly a great spot among them. That is the new home of Jojoto (pronounced Ho-ho-toe), a Venezuelan restaurant and bar.
Jojoto is nestled among a mostly residential beach neighborhood that brings the Venezuelan feel to life. This wonderful family restaurant is the creation of owners Victor and Nicola Figueroa. Victor, a native of Venezuela, and Nicola, from the Branford area, wanted to create a place where great food and family were the guiding principles. Tired of traveling for work as an accountant, Victor decided to pursue a dream of opening a restaurant that would make his mother, a single mother of six, proud and in the process have the opportunity to be closer to Nicola and their two children. After having some difficulty finding a chef that shared their vision, they ultimately met and befriended chef and entertainer, Neil Fuentes. Also a native of Venezuela, Fuentes and the Figueroas hit it off, and the rest, as they say, is history!
Jojoto, which means “corn on the cob” in Spanish, takes the color palette for the restaurant from it’s linguistic roots. The dining room and bar area are a blend of bright but muted greens and yellows, accented with a clean white base. The ambiance infers a cozy but upscale feel. The owners and chef want Jojoto to be about good eats and entertainment. Everyone, particularly Neil, LOVE to have a good time, so it’s no surprise that he came out of the kitchen belting out “Mack the Knife” to our whole group! Click here to see it! It’s not only Neil that can carry a tune, part of the job requirement of all servers is being able to bring the house down. Our lovely server, Savannah, performed “Where the Boys Are” in between courses!
The cocktails at Jojoto are made with some Venezuelan love as well. Our favorites included the Passion Fruit and Jalapeño Cocktail and the Tamarindo Martini. All of the juices and infusions are done in-house, which gives all of the drinks a fresh quality. The Passion Fruit and Jalapeño Cocktail is made with a passion fruit infused vodka and fresh jalapeños. It was beautifully refreshing with a nice bit of spice at the end. The Tamarindo Martini was crafted with tamarind, simple syrup and lime infused vodka. This had a cinnamon-like edge with a nice sour complement.
We started the evening with a nice selection of miniature versions of some of the classic Venezuelan staples that Jojoto offers everyday. We love our empanadas and arepas, so we were thrilled try the chicken, beef, and rice and beans empanadas, as well as the beef, reina pepiada, and cheese arepas. We could definitely make a full meal out of these.
For our next group of appetizers, we had the pleasure of sampling of six very unique interpretations on some classic dishes. They all share a common theme, which is that they each tie into chapters from Neil Fuentes’ life. From new takes on his mother’s recipes and low-budget staples when he worked in his first job, everything has a story. We especially loved the Tostones, Mujillones (Mussels), and Guacacos. Everything looked so gorgeous on the plate, in addition to tasting great. Since we are on the topic, it’s noteworthy to mention that all of the kitchen staff is brand new to working in a restaurant in any capacity. They were only on Day 38 of their new career. learning under the tutelage of Professor Neil Fuentes! But to get back to the food….
The appetizers were certainly noteworthy, but the entrées blew our minds and our stomachs. The first course we tried was a Neil Fuentes version of a Venezuelan favorite, El Pabellon Criollo. This dish is named after the Venezuelan flag and incorporates white rice, black beans, shredded beef and sweet plantains. It was served in a small ceramic bowl that locked in all of the comforting flavors. This dish is the perfect thing for a crisp fall evening. It’s some of the best comfort food we’ve had in a while.
We then had a chance to try a unique creation called Gallinita which Neil often makes with Cornish hen or chicken. It combines citrus juices, shrimp fume, vegetables, leeks and sweet plantains. The chicken was perfectly crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. It’s not often that we rave about eating chicken out at a restaurant, but this was definitely worthy!
Now, for the star of the evening, the SHORT RIB! Short rib is a caché item in a lot of restaurants these days, but Neil absolutely nailed this one. We have never seen so much love for one item at a blogger dinner before. Neil was only to happy to oblige us by coming out of the kitchen with the entire tray of short rib and giving seconds to everyone that wanted it (there were not many that declined the offer). The short rib melted in your mouth and had a depth of flavor that would make any short rib lover asking for more.
The last entrée was the Paella. Just returning from Portugal and Spain recently, we’ve had our share of great paellas. Neil’s flavors were up their with the best of them. He certainly has a way of taking the classics and making them his own.
In case we hadn’t indulged enough, we were treated to a trio of desserts! There was the classic Tres Leches, Coconut Custard Cake and the Churros. The Tres Leches was light and refreshing with a hint of banana. The Coconut Custard Cake is a creation of Neil’s mother and it was definitely the star of the group. If you love coconut, you will be hard-pressed to a better dessert. The last dessert was the Churros, which made us so happy. They were light and fluffy with just the right amount of cinnamon and sugar.
Jojoto is the full package – amazing people, innovative and delicious food, and a gorgeous setting. The experience left us with an ear to ear grin. Spending time with Victor, Nicola, Neil and the whole staff was like going to dinner at your best friends’ house. We strongly recommend making the trip to Branford to become part of the family.
Address: 130 Shore Drive, Branford, CT 06405
Phone: (203) 208-4141
Do they take reservations? Yes, Call for reservations
Vibe: Comfortable, Upbeat
Outdoor Seating? YES!
Hours: Monday: 5:00 PM – 10 PM (Kitchen open until 9:00)
Tuesday to Thursday: 11:30 AM – 10:00 PM (Lunch 11:30 AM – 3:00 PM) (Dinner 5:00 PM – 9:00 PM)
Friday & Saturday: 11:30 AM – 11:00 PM (Lunch 11:30 AM – 3:00 PM) (Dinner 5:00 PM – 10:00 PM)
Sunday Brunch: 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM (Kitchen open 10:00 AM – 2:00 PM)