Dancing the Finnish Tangö
There’s no lutefisk at Göran Streng’s new Kakaako restaurant—just upscale comfort food.
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Göran Streng’s sauteed moi on tomato fennel coulis and ratatouille is not everyone’s idea of home cooking, but it’s comfort food nonetheless.
Photo by Alex Viarnes
The last time I saw Göran Streng, he and his family were serving up breakfast, char siu chicken fried rice with eggs and Portuguese sausage, for $5.50 at the Kapiolani Farmers Market. Then I spot him, newly bearded, working the display kitchen of a brand-new restaurant, Tangö. Last I’d heard, the restaurant had been delayed for months and months. Here it was, lights on, burners lit, tables full.
“Göran, you never tell me anything,” I complained.
“We’ve been trying to open quietly, no publicity,” he said. “Last Saturday was our first night. We didn’t tell anyone, and we got slammed anyway, 100 covers. People from the building.”
The building. Streng’s new restaurant is on the ground floor of Hokua, next to P.F. Chang’s. It must be one of the best restaurant locations in the state. Not only is it right in the center of the whole Ward/Ala Moana complex, with ample parking, but it has 248 condos (average resale price: $3,009,472.22) perched right on top of it.
“I wanted a neighborhood joint,” says Streng. “But this is a pretty good neighborhood.”
The location—Streng refers to Hokua as “the Halekulani of condos”–set off a delicate balancing act. The little 50-seat restaurant had to be elegant, upscale, “nice” enough for the building. At the same time, says Streng, “I didn’t want it to seem like a fancy restaurant. I didn’t want to intimidate anyone from walking in off the street.”
Many people have tried to create what Streng was after—casual, unpretentious fine dining. That was the idea, you’ll remember, behind George Mavrothalassitis’ Cassis. Cassis had a talented chef and stunning pastry chef, but it was supposed to be casual, and wasn’t. It was far too much restaurant for its downtown location.
It’s hard to hit that casual note. Perhaps the last restaurant to hit it perfectly in Honolulu was the old Swiss Inn. Everyone wants a place where eating is no big deal, you feel you could go everyday, but the food’s still great.
Tangö aspires to be just that place. It succeeds from an unlikely combination of ingredients, one of which is Finland.
Like Göran Streng himself, his new restaurant has a slight Finnish accent, like the Marimekko wall hangings behind him.
Photo by Alex Viarnes
Streng was born and raised in Finland. Although he’s lived in Hawaii longer than he lived in Scandinavia, you can still hear from time to time an accent in his voice—“over dere, togedduh.” Tangö has that slight Finnish accent as well.
First, in the name, which has nothing do with the Argentine tango. It’s a portmanteau word, combining the first names of Streng’s business partner, Tami Oroxco, and Streng himself, which explains that little umlaut over the final o.
There’s also a faint Finnish tinge to the décor. The fabric panels are a famous ’60s floral design—unikko—from the Finnish design house Marimekko. A planter full of birch trees splits the dining room down the middle.
Tangö is an increasing rarity in Honolulu, a chef-driven restaurant, in the sense it has a chef owner.
I doubt many people in Hawaii know Finland well enough to be reminded of it. But somehow the décor works, even things like Streng’s decision to use a few wooden picnic tables instead of booths. “I wanted it to look rustic,” says Streng.
Tangö’s hardly a Scandinavian restaurant. “No lutefisk,” laughs Streng, lutefisk being a particularly nasty kind of fishcake created by soaking cod in a bath of lye made from birch ash.
However, Streng did get his culinary start in a restaurant outside Helsinki called Hwitträsk (you have to love Finnish names). Hwitträsk is a famous log-cabinlike structure, half museum, half small restaurant. “At long last, I’m back in a kitchen that small,” he says, “and I tell my crew, the advantage is, you have to learn to do everything.”