When asked what time he gets in every morning, Preseuth “JJ” W. Luangkhot — chef and owner of JJ Bistro & French Pastry — replies with a laugh, “I never sleep; I live here.” He goes on to explain, “If you love doing something, love creating, you don’t see it as work; it’s not a burden.” With this very attitude, Luangkhot has been able to take his Laotian heritage and extensive background in French baking to create a special place with extraordinarily creative meals and desserts.
JJ’s makes 17 years next March, and yet, Luangkhot’s start was not an easy one. He first came to the Waialae location in 1998, but couldn’t settle on a price for the space. When he came back in 1999, the spot still was empty. “The owner practically threw the keys at me, and said, ‘Here, take it!'” Luangkhot reminisces. Since his humble beginnings, Luangkhot has since gone on to win countless awards for his desserts, especially the famed Chocolate Pyramid, which now is available gluten-free.
The restaurant seats 64. Photo by Anthony Consillio
Chef and owner JJ Luangkhot. Photo by Anthony Consillio
Baked Opakapaka ($14.95)
At first, Luangkhot wanted to be a wholesale provider, selling his desserts and cakes, but the need for food — good food — grew. So, he put to use whatever recipes and cooking techniques he learned from his mother, and began offering simple lunches and dinners. “Soon, it became a little party,” Luangkhot says of his modest eight-seat cafe at the time. In 2007, he was able to take over the space next door and knock down the wall. Since then, the restaurant has grown to include 64 seats, leaving Luangkhot to think of a way to keep those seats filled.
He began offering free entremets with each entree, in which diners receive their choice of any of the 45 desserts available, no matter the price.
The display case at JJ’s is packed with an assortment of tarts, cakes and, of course, a well-stocked supply of Chocolate Pyramids. The newest additions to this long list of desserts include Lilikoi Cheesecake ($4.25, special) and Guava Cheese-cake ($4.25, special). Each is a miniature pie, boasting local flavors and showcasing Luangkhot’s French baking skills. Before obtaining a free dessert, patrons choose from a steadfast menu of food representing a fusion of Laotian and French cuisine.
Even with a new restaurant on the horizon (expected to open in October) and six locations in Tokyo, Luangkhot keeps his attention on the ever-changing and evolving food scene in Kaimuki. The chef is quick to deliver, as a slew of requests for more rice dishes comes in. “Most of the Thai (food) places are gone on Waialae, so I’m trying to give customers more options,” Luangkhot explains.
JJ’s has since revamped its lunch specials, offering Gourmet Sets, including either soup or salad and an entree of your choosing. The soup options include the Daily Special and even the House Soup, which is a Laotian specialty called Khang Lao. “It’s similar to Thai tom yum, except not as spicy,” Luangkhot says.
Manila Clams with Fettuccini ($12.95)
Seafood Medley ($16.95)
The entrees for lunch specials include Manila Clams with Fettuccine ($12.95), which offers a scattering of Manila clams, carrots, celery and bell peppers, mixed with a light sauce and laid over a bed of fettuccine noodles. “We want to promote clams this summer,” Luangkhot explains, adding that “all dishes can be made with rice or noodles.”
Customers also can choose Baked Opakapaka ($14.95), which is served over a mound of rice and accompanied by a chili basil sauce. A mixture of bell peppers, carrots and celery is enhanced with a few pieces of bamboo shoots, which Luangkhot mentions are different from the bamboo shoots frequently found in Thai food, and actually is more like asparagus in taste and texture.
Seafood Medley ($16.95) is a new item that is made with green curry, a concoction JJ’s is famous for. “It’s ‘a la maison (regarding the home),’ my home-style cooking,” Luangkhot interjects, making sure that Now Plating understands that this recipe comes from the heart, like all his other creations. The meal is a refreshed version of the cafe’s Fisherman’s Pie and features shrimp, Manila clams, scallops and salmon, with the addition of the asparagus-like bamboo shoot, eggplant and zucchini. It also is served with rice or noodles.
The choices don’t end with soup or salad and an entree. Luangkhot reminds customers that the concept of JJ’s is to create food that diners want to eat, which may include customized orders. You are able to choose your level of spice — or a dish without spice — and the style of sauce you want, whether it’s Southeast Asian or European. Luangkhot can and will accommodate all requests, which is why customers always walk out of the established eatery more than satisfied and eager to return.
Now Plating has a feeling that JJ Bistro & French Pastry will be around for another 17 years, and then some. As other restaurants on Waialae fade away, JJ’s remains, reassuring the chef that he must be doing something right.