Where We Got Started...
There is more than meets the eye at JJ Bistro and French Pastry. The bright, cheery bakery and cafe serves a deeper purpose than dishing out the affordable fusion cuisine that has made it a neighborhood favorite. It is also a tribute to the owner’s late mentor.
Praseuth Luangkhot, or “JJ,’’ is the chef and owner. The bistro is a family affair, where Luangkhot’s wife, Daokeo, his sister, Chin Li Majewski, and aunt, Porntip Pothongsunan, also work. The menu includes French, Laotian, and French-Laotian dishes such as fisherman pot pie, a melange of seafood and vegetables swimming in the chef’s piquant green curry and resting between pillows of house-made puff pastry, a labor-intensive rarity in a region better known for rice. Green curry is woven through the menu, found also on pizza and in several noodle dishes. But as its name suggests, JJ Bistro and French Pastry does indeed serve classic desserts, many that Luangkhot learned under the tutelage of a master.
Luangkhot has humble beginnings in the food world. He was a teenager when he left his native Laos in 1985 and found work in New York at Roy Rogers and McDonald’s restaurants. A friend helped him land a job at Maxim’s, an upscale place on Madison Avenue. The pastry kitchen was run by Jean-Marc Burillier, who became his mentor. “If you looked at my resume, I didn’t have any [experience],’’ says Luangkhot. Burillier decided to take a chance on the hard-working 20-year-old. “My life is changing from the first day in Maxim’s. If I didn’t meet Jean-Marc, and he didn’t give me an opportunity, I wouldn’t be here today.’’
Luangkhot began training as a pastry chef in 1994. One day, he suggested that Burillier take a break from work and drive to a beach on Long Island. The spot was soon to close for the season, says Luangkhot, because the seas become too rough. Burillier went — and drowned that day. He was 29.
Luangkhot was grief-stricken and wrestling with guilt. “After he passed away I just felt like I wanted to leave New York,’’ he says. “I could not handle the situation anymore.’’ He went to scout locations for his own restaurant, passing on Seattle and Portland, finally finding something while visiting Honolulu. “I asked my friend to show me where is the best place for dessert, and there was none,’’ says the chef.
At JJ Bistro, there is attention to detail in every element on the plate. Finely chopped green apple tops a salad served with chunks of baked lobster smothered in aioli and melted mozzarella; the tart fruit saves a potentially too-rich dish with a flash of brightness. Dots of flame-red Sriracha sauce do the same.
Ordered without chicken or shrimp, khang lao has to be the most flavorful vegan dish imaginable. Aromatic, tangy broth is prepared with the Laotian mirepoix of galangal, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves. Each steaming portion is served in an ornate clay vessel, which Luangkhot orders from a family-owned business in Thailand. No two are alike. Herbs are fresh from a farm in the nearby town of Mililani. Coffee is Hawaiian Kona Kauai, noodles are from the Ying Leong Look Funn Factory in Honolulu’s Chinatown, and everything else, including French bread and pate, is made from scratch.
Honolulu no longer suffers for lack of desserts. The restaurant’s main attraction is the pastry case that greets customers as they walk in. It offers clafoutis, eclairs, tiramisu, fruit tarts, and miniature green-tea cheesecakes. But the display is dominated by one imposing dessert that has become JJ’s trademark: the chocolate pyramid. “The pyramid is our signature,’’ Luangkhot says. It is triple chocolate, like a truffle, like a solid mousse. Once it hits the tongue, he says, “you just let it melt.’’ Pyramids are available in small and regular size, the latter containing a staggering amount of chocolate.
The dessert was created in 1992 by Burillier, whose photographs adorn the bistro’s walls. “I want him to see that the one he trained has become a great chef in Hawaii,’’ Luangkhot says.
By Aaron Kagan for The Boston Globe/ January 12, 2011
JJ (right) with his late mentor, Jean Marc Burillier (left)
What started as a little pastry shop in 1999, soon later expanded into a full bistro in 2001.