CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL /
JJ Luangkhot keeps branching out to include more and moe hot entrees in an enterprise that started simply with desserts and baked goods. He holds an appetizer of baked lobster with avocado.
Subtlety succeeds at JJ’s
People often ask why I haven't bothered to write or compile a book of my reviews. The main reason is that restaurants are subject to frequent change, so the minute such a project is completed is the minute the information is obsolete. I can't handle that idea.
JJ French Pastry
3447 Waialae Ave. / 739-0993
Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays; to 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and noon to 8 p.m. .Sundays
Cost: Lunch about $10 to $12 per person; dinner for two about $35 to $50 for two
Take JJ French Pastry. I reviewed it four years ago when JJ Luangkhot had just introduced food service to his dessert business. What he offered at the time were simple basics worth seeking out if you lived in the area, but not necessarily worth making a special trip from where I lived, then in Kailua.
Like most people, I struggle to come up with an idea of what to eat every day, and dining is often a matter of convenience and finding something relatively healthy (difficult here) for a good value. And, like most people, I'd be more likely to head to a restaurant closer to my home than a "better" one 10 or even five miles away.
JJ now being about 12 miles round trip from my home in Liliha, it's not on my short list of places to go, but when a couple of people told me recently that it was one of their favorite restaurants, I had to revisit, even after considering the fact that they live in Kaimuki, close to the restaurant, which places it high on their convenience scale.
A lot has changed since I last visited. The room is now twice the size as before, and haphazardly painted in uneven gelato-hued swaths of pistachio and melon. When a restaurant's new, the interior is more likely to be perfect, but having called this space home for a while, JJ's longtime customers have stopped noticing, don't care or simply tolerate it. To regulars, ambience can cease to be a priority.
JJ's offers a number of prix fixe menus that are quite a deal when you factor in a choice of any dessert in the chef's colorful showcase of treats. The menus range from the selection of one vegetarian entree and dessert (valued up to about $4.50) for $8.95 (it's $1 extra for his signature Chocolate Pyramid of cake and mousse dusted with cocoa powder) to $24.70 for a four-course meal.
The latter starts with a lovely homemade soup of the day that often starts with fresh vegetables and little sodium or fat added. The appetizer is baked lobster avocado on toast ($7.95 a la carte), which is a bit heavy on aioli. To this you can add your choice of entree and finish with a miniteacup portion of creme brulee and your choice of dessert. Portion sizes are just enough to allow you to save room for that all-important dessert, leaving you feeling happily sated but not overstuffed. This is due, in part, to a light hand on the food.
Another four-course menu, at $19.95, differs with an appetizer offering of two slices of Laotian Rock'n Roll, two pieces of summer roll filled with crisp vegetables, rice vermicelli and chicken with a hint of lemongrass curry. At other restaurants, these rolls can be put together sloppily, but here, matchstick slices of cucumber line up perfectly, and biting into the roll, you can taste the distinct fresh flavors.
Luangkhot's baking expertise makes the simplest croissant sandwiches a joy. This is also true of pate chaude ($6.50) of ground pork and onion baked in puff pastry. It would be comfort food for anyone who grew up with Chinese-style pork hash.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL /
Eat all your dinner and you can treat yourself to a chocolate fruit basket ($3.95) at the end of the meal.
The marriage of French, Italian and Laotian cuisine works because of the capable execution of mostly European dishes with something extra in the final touches: a hint of green curry or chili sauce that doesn't overwhelm the senses at all. It's just enough to perk up the palate and sense of smell, sending a quick message to the brain to make note of these subtle new sensations.
It can be a little too subtle at times, as with a classic Fettuccini in a Parmesan cream sauce so light you can taste the flour in the pasta. The strongest flavor in the dish, which I ordered with chicken ($9.95), came from a sprig of rosemary that sat as garnish on top of the pasta.
Yes, the light touch is great if you live in the area and dine out frequently, so appreciate spa-style cuisine less likely to add pounds to your frame. But was it enough to entice me to make a special trip? Not really, especially when pasta is part of the arsenal of every home cook, and as long as gas prices remain high.
Similarly, seafood in the specialty Lao pot pie ($9.99) and seafood brioche ($10.95) was cut into a small dice, turning out dry and rather flavorless save for their respective light curry and black pepper cream sauces. The brioche was further saved by the fresh shiitake and leeks that added texture and intensity to the dish.
Dessert is always the highlight here, and it's really hard to choose from the 25 or so in the glass case. The Chocolate Pyramid ($4.50/$4.75 with raspberry center) has to be the favorite. After that a chocolate fruit basket ($3.95) tempts the eye, and one starts imagining just how good an almondine tart ($4.25) or pumpkin cheesecake ($2.95) will be. I went for the lilikoi mousse cake, which paired well with my table-mate's Pyramid.