When beloved restaurants close, palaces mourn. Instant nostalgia arises for flavors that will likely never be tasted again. I expect to spend years chasing the buttermilk-soaked juiciness of Empress Tavern’s fried chicken, just as I searched in vain for a veggie burger approaching the caramelized genius of Greta’s Cafe’s nutty burger.
So it’s become a delight, two and a half years after chef-owner David English closed his much-loved The Press Bistro, to sample the familiar flavor of his thinly sliced tender calamari steak and navigate the crackling and the smoothness of its arancini, this time in a new place.
He and his wife, Kelly English, opened their Juju Kitchen & Cocktails focused on small plates and craft drinks in June, filling the former Hotel Bar space in downtown Residence Inn by Marriott. The coolest thing to attach to this Residence Inn since Shepard Fairey painted his Johnny Cash mural on its facade in 2018, Juju offers the same understated elegance of food and atmosphere that the press has done for nearly a decade. before David, faced with mounting expenses and too few hours at home with his family, chose not to renew the downtown restaurant’s lease.
But Juju, designed by Kelly and oriented toward the space’s large windows and views of the restaurant’s curtain patio and Capitol Park, is brighter than the Press, with peach and pink tones running through its walls and frothy cocktails.
Streamlining into small plates makes sense for those of us who have been so enamored with tapas and press appetizers that we forgot to leave room for our starters. I fondly remember having the pappardelle and prime rib at the bistro, but also as leftovers the next day for lunch.
News apps relaunched in Juju are not always exact replicas. The portions are larger, says David, and the presentation varies. When we visited in July, summer sweetcorn enriched the arancini, and an earthy romesco sauce supplanted the much-admired accompaniment of white beans and arugula from the press for the grilled calamari.
“We had been thinking about the concept that we are doing now since last year” the press was open, says David. This concept encompasses limited hours (4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday) and no reservations. The team includes press veterans Ramon Medina and Jon Russo. Medina serves as head chef and Russo manages the front of the house. The latter curates Juju’s wine-by-the-glass list that crosses continents, which nails must-have chardonnay-rosé-cabernet and less-anticipated options like the crisp, acidic 2021 Picpoul from Bonny Doon Vineyard.
Medina and Russo handle things most nights, allowing David, famous for his ubiquitous press greeting, to spend more time with Kelly and his sons Rex, 10, and Theo, 6. Every day, David and Medina discuss “what was with the farmers”. ‘ market, and what we want to do with these [ingredients], and what the revenue will be,” says David. “And I’m going to set things up in the morning to make sure we have that consistency of everything that [dish] is.”
It’s easier to innovate and improvise with smaller plates, David adds. Our visit benefited from David’s decision to turn what a particular market stall was offering that week into a simply seasoned and incredibly tasty plate of tomatoes, cucumbers and onions.
Trace amounts of salt, pepper and vinegar enhanced thick slices of heirloom tomatoes, with a small heap of pickled onions providing extra pop, if desired. The way David left the tomatoes mostly at their essence reminded us of how he chooses finesse over the flash of salt, fat and brightness that many chefs push for.
“Other dishes may have more depth and flavor, but I think heirloom tomatoes are just an amazing product from Sacramento, so I leave it as it is,” he says.
Juju’s craft cocktails, crafted by David and bartenders Alex Walker and Karlie Jones, expertly layer and balance flavors. The French Exit, with Hendrick’s gin, Lillet liqueur, green chartreuse, lemon and egg white, started out oddly herbaceous and got more flavorful as its jalapeño component slowly revealed its intent. Meanwhile, the Bosslady uses lemon and balsamic to combat a potentially cloying concoction of strawberry-infused vodka and agave syrup.
The coolest drink I tasted was called “& Everything Nice”, a muddled watermelon mocktail made so invigorating by serrano pepper syrup that the alcohol was irrelevant – Juju offers two mocktails without alcohol and a low-alcohol cocktail so people who limit or don’t drink still get a carefully crafted choice of drinks on a night out, says David. The restaurant also caters to gluten-free diners, in part due to Theo’s diagnosis of celiac disease and David’s discoveries while cooking for him.
“I started using almond flour and chickpea flour, and I found that I was making all these things that were as good as anything made with wheat flour,” says the chief. The restaurant’s cuisine is wheat-free beyond a pita which is part of the hummus plate but not baked in-house.
David likes the way the name of the restaurant evokes toy, which translates from French as “toy” or “toy”. The term “juju” – a form of West African magic that has made its way to Louisiana – also brings to mind the Big Easy, where David and Kelly first met and where in 2006 New Orleans The magazine named David Best New Chef for his work at the Hotel Monaco’s Cobalt Restaurant. He also opened Ella Dining Room & Bar as executive chef before he and Kelly opened The Press Bistro. Kelly, who is a poet and creative writing teacher by profession, also designed this space.
“My husband is really like, ‘we’ll figure it out’ – that’s kind of his independence, that’s just part of who he is,” Kelly says. “We did the press very simply, so when it came time to go back, that’s how we do it.”
His Juju zhuzhing began by trying to highlight the light provided by nearly floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking L and 15 streets. “The space, when we inherited it, was dark and had a bunch of features that made it very heavy on the inside,” says Kelly. She painted dark gray walls that seemed to deny sunlight and removed wood paneling covering the bar’s tall pillars. His design worked with the feel of “rustic cement” uncovered under the panels; she painted it peach in the New Orleans tradition of combining “the rough and the refined.” This aesthetic ranges from Juju’s polished concrete floors to its eye-catching botanical print wallpaper to chic yet plush seating. A mix of high tops suitable for groups and lower, more intimate tables for two matches David’s philosophy of choosing your own experience.
“If you go to the theater, the food is going to come out real fast,” he says, referring to Juju’s location, which is a few blocks from the SAFE Credit Union Performing Arts Center and Memorial Auditorium. “I think you can walk in, buy food, drink, pay your bill and walk out in 40 minutes, if that’s what you’re looking for.” Staying longer is also encouraged. David envisions patrons arriving for dinner and ordering several plates, and, when the Legislature meets, “people coming in after work, sitting down, doing business and getting bottles of wine and eating a lot.” He knows this crowd, from the press and from Ella.
Juju Kitchen & Cocktails is first and foremost “a gathering place,” he says. “The consistency of the food will be a backdrop, but the gathering place is the beginning.” 1501 L Street. jujukitchenandcocktails.com