JJ’s Bistro & French Pastry / The French have given us many great things: the Enlightenment, the Statue of Liberty, “for her pleasure” condoms, and, most of all, food so amazing you have to know a foreign language just to talk about it. French cuisine is, of course, an art form, notable not only for taste but also presentation. Fortunately, the French exported their dining sensibilities to their colonies, which led to the fabulous Laotian-French fusion phenomenon that is JJ’s Bistro & French Pastry in Kaimuki.
JJ’s Bistro is one of those special jewels of Hawai’i that is almost shocking to find way out here on the rock. Chef Praseuth Luangkhot, a Laos native, made a name for himself in New York City, where he studied under the late chef Jean Marc Burillier at Maxim’s restaurant. From making cookies and souffles at Maxim’s, to his own restaurant in sunny Honolulu–born when he realized how much he hated snow–Chef Luangkhot has carved out a niche as purveyor of pastries for the discerning palate. His famous chocolate pyramids grace the menus of restaurants all over O’ahu, but a much wider variety can be found at the little bistro on Wai’alae.
The pastry display greets you at the door with beautiful temptations such as plum tarts, chocolate fruit baskets, and frou frou au chocolate. There is a separate seating area near the entrance for those who are just popping in for espresso and a sweet morsel. This space can get surprisingly chilly, but it probably keeps the desserts from melting. For a warmer seat and more savory fare, the main dining room is just through the archway, under the Eiffel Tower. Reproductions of very French posters and paintings adorn the restaurant (which is still in the process of being remodeled, so expect a few unpainted pony walls and maybe a chair leg or two wrapped in plastic.) No complaints here: the soft primary colors and clean, straight lines give this space a cozy, modern ambience, and everything smells deliciously of baking pastry crust.
The selections on the menu are as varied as the pastries: pizzas and sandwiches rub shoulders with ratatouille and fresh ‘opakapaka. “Fusion” doesn’t quite describe what JJ’s has going on; the food is so eclectic and the flavors so harmonious as to transcend neat labels such as “French-Laotian,” or “Eurasian.” It’s just plain delicious. We’ll leave it at that.
There are two fixed menus offering soup, appetizer, entree, and dessert, which spares you from going through that agonizing decision-making process that kills so many first dates. (“How will we raise our children if you can’t even choose between soup and salad?!”) Menu A ($19.95) comes with asparagus soup, a Laotian chicken roll, choice of entree, and choice of dessert. Menu B ($24.95) is the same, but with baked lobster and avocado for an appetizer instead of the chicken roll.
The asparagus soup, actually more of a bisque, comes in a small clay vessel with a lid, almost like an ancient Egyptian honey pot. It is a big gritty–such is the way of asparagus–but is a creamy and savory introduction to Chef Luangkhot’s repertoire. The ginger-sesame dressing on the chicken spring roll and the avocado dressing on the lobster appetizer both balance Western and Eastern flavors perfectly, combining the low notes of shellfish and chicken with the high, tangy spices of the Orient. The lobster in particular draws these two schools of cuisine together, with a dab of eye-popping Sriracha sauce to compliment the melting cheese and cream on crisp slices of bread.
Choices for entrees vary, but the Fisherman’s pot pie gives Chef Luangkhot to show off his pastry skills in a more savory dish. A dense, flaky crust cradles a rich concoction of shrimp, scallops, salmon, zucchini and bamboo shoots, all drenched in a buttery cream sauce. The seafood is cooked to perfection and is almost as good as those last sauce-soaked morsels of pie crust left over at the end. If only it wasn’t impolite to lick your plate.
Equally tasty is the Cornish hen with rosemary garnish and another generous helping of cream sauce. The meat, while a bit underdone, is moist and tender on the inside with a succulent skin that crackles when you cut into it. A generous helping of baked potato spears–could these be real French fries?–soaks up the cream for a rich finish.
It’s almost a shame you have to wait until the end of the meal for dessert. The fixed menu gives you your choice of pastries in the display case (the famous chocolate pyramid is $1 extra) along with a teensy dish of pumpkin crme brulee, complete with a hard shell of caramelized sugar. Unfortunately, there’s no guidelines to help you make this choice. Will it be the lemon honey cake with a little spun sugar bee and flower? The frou frou au chocolate with a fruit center? Or one of the fruit tarts shaped like a rose? They’re all excellent and all have a little surprise waiting for you. The apricot pistachio has a whole candied apricot propping up the glowing orange dome on its nutty bed, and the chocolate pyramid is full of light, fluffy chocolate mousse.
JJ’s Bistro & French Pastry gives you world class cuisine in a chic setting at very reasonable prices. Kaimuki is lucky to have such a star in its midst, and Chef Luangkhot is a treasure to be shared with anyone who ever loved chocolate, ginger-sesame, cream sauce and French ticklers.
JJ’s Bistro & French Pastry
3447 Wai’alae Avenue, 739-0993 Hours: Mon–Sat, 9am–9pm; Sun, noon–9pm
Payment accepted: AmEx, Disc, MC, V