Restaurants

Umami Cafe, Tango Market
Tangö Market steals the side show.
Image: Shantel Grace

The Bad, the Good, the Malt in your Mouth

Once occupied by Satura Cakes, both Tangö Market and Umami Café ask--is there such a thing as “too” casual?

Umami Cafe, Tango Market / I’m a fairly easy casual diner who doesn’t need arse-kissing. I don’t need someone to wipe my crumbs or applaud me for ordering bruschetta while pronouncing it correctly. Just don’t make me feel stupid because I can’t figure out where to place my order.

That’s where it all started at Umami Café–a Japanese-style coffee bar located in the Harbor Court Building downtown. Visually speaking, it’s a stunner. Warm lighting and Asian décor are incredibly latte: strong, frothy, steamy and exactly what a person wants in a coffee shop. But let me get straight to the point.

A sign says, “Order Here,” but don’t fall for it.

The girl behind the counter looks utterly annoyed that I’m still standing there five minutes later. How was I supposed to know that the café’s “Carry Out” sign is short for “Read my mind”?

Still, my hopes were high. Like I’ve already mentioned, the place is aesthetically inviting, and anyone in the mood for a cute downtown lunch spot would’ve stopped just like I did. After swallowing my pride, I finally ordered a grilled, smoked salmon BLT ($5.49), but then made the audacious mistake of asking about their soup of the day.

“Portuguese bean soup,” she says, and I say “One bowl please,” and she says “Take a bowl from the table.” So I scoop up a bowl of soup from the bento table: Cold, cold soup from a cold, cold heart.

Strike two.

A sandwich it is. (And a slice of carrot cake ($4.95) and a tempura handroll ($2.59) and a drink.) Not that bad for $18 but not that great either. Had the service been exceptional, the food would’ve tasted better. But the fact that I felt stupid and underfed, all the while experiencing epic buyer’s remorse, left a funny taste in my mouth.

Despite my dislike of their service, I still consider Umami Café an interesting discovery. I’ve only tried one percent of their menu, and I’d like to think that perhaps I caught them on an “off” day. They have items like the lobster sandwich ($5.99) and a cranberry turkey croissant ($5.49) that look pretty darn good. Their specialty bentos ($3.99–$8.99) and warm coffees and mochas could very well knock somebody else’s socks off.

Learning to forgive mediocre service and mildly warm food isn’t easy, especially in a town where, for the same price, I can find fresh fish with a side of aloha for the same price. The atmosphere of Umami Café shines through, but just as I’m heading out the door, I look for a recycle bin to throw my aluminum can in, and the same girl yells out, “Just throw it away, we don’t recycle here.”

Strike three.

Tangö Market, on the other hand, is quietly irresistible. Its menu is smartly priced; its dining area is airy but not cold; and when so many restaurants are skimming on trends, Tangö reaches for mom’s kitchen while keeping their food pretty healthy. Waffles, shepherd’s pie, meatballs and vegetarian lasagna are just a few of the items taken straight out of some Scandinavian recipe book.

Located at Ward Center, Tangö Market seems to be preaching a gourmet-on-the-run kitchen concept, standing firm in an honest marriage between Swedish flavors and American largesse. Its colorful décor and warm lighting are just right for breakfast with friends or as a lone diner perfectly comfortable with a book of short stories.

What stole my heart was the pillowy chocolate mousse topped with cream and nutty bits of something akin to toffee ($4.95). Enough for two, this dessert steals the menu’s thunder. It’s smooth, spongy and silky in all the right places.

The vegetarian lasagna ($59.95) is enough to feed a family (6-8 people). Smaller portions are available, and much more affordable, but knowing there’s a place that uses whole ingredients, and cooks with respect for our health, is a welcoming thought.

My only complaint: Although we understand the concept of casual dining, is there such a thing as too casual? For example, if the oriental chicken wraps are pre-made and wrapped and ready to go, why make the customer wait at the table instead of handing them to him? And let me refer back to the previous review–Umami Café–where, even though the soup was cold, the café does offer a complimentary microwave. But do we want to pay $18 to nuke the food ourselves?

Regardless, Tangö’s oriental chicken wrap arrives colorful, juicy and full of flavor–a reminder of the days when ingredients were pronounceable.

Small things impressed in a big way. Nothing seemed over-salted, overly sweet or in any way compromised. And the chefs are wise enough to know it.

55 Merchant St. Harbor Court Building Mon.-Fri., 6:30am - 2:30pm 537-6555 [umamicafehawaii.com]

1200 Ala Moana Blvd. Ward Center, Bldg 6, Ste 601 Mon.–Fri., 7am–9pm; Sat., 8am–9pm; Sun., 8am-5pm 596-4888 [tangomarket.com]