Last September, so many tried to score a reservation at Tomo, the avant-garde Japanese bistro in White Center, that the restaurant accumulated a waitlist 15,000 names long, before its dining room chairs were even delivered. To hear the gripes from those who didn’t score a table to the hottest opening in town, one would have thought they were re-litigating the last presidential election. One sore loser thought the reservation system was rigged. Another swore that the waitlist was fake.
All the fuss was over the solo debut of Brady Ishiwata Williams, the photogenic chef who seven years ago landed in the kitchen of Seattle’s Canlis restaurant. With Williams at the tiller, Canlis earned one of the few four-star reviews ever awarded by The Seattle Times. Food & Wine magazine later anointed him one of 2018’s best new chefs in America. One year later he snagged the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Northwest.
He recruited Canlis alums Diana Mata García who also worked the two-Michelin-starred Blanca in Brooklyn and Richard Garcia who worked at the acclaimed Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco to be his chef de cuisine and pastry chef respectively.
Tomo focuses more on plants, with meat and seafood used for seasoning legumes or hogging very little real estate on the plate. His menu hopscotches from Latin America to Europe. But Williams is clearly anchored to his grandmother’s ancestral homeland of Japan. His obsession with Japanese umami is apparent. Just about every dish pops with dashi, koji or miso.
The squash dish on his debut menu last September was one of the best vegetarian dishes I’ve had in the past five years — the gourd mandoline-sliced then bathed in an eggy miso and then grilled and served with hemp pudding, toasted hemp seeds, pickled squash and an arugula-infused oil to imbue the plant with nutty, smoky and peppery flavors. There were a lot of ingredients that should have clashed, but I could still taste the fresh squash.
That was some cooking sorcery, a standout in an otherwise inconsistent menu at the time it opened. Since then, Tomo has become more focused, without some of the overworked dishes that marred its much-hyped debut. Williams has ditched lunch service to give his kitchen time to work on the prix-fixe lineup that changes nightly depending on the fresh bounties.
And that long waitlist? Tomo now offers open seating on the patio and at part of the bar, serving an à la carte menu to those diners.
But you want a seat in the dining room. That’s the only place where Tomo serves its five-course, $86 tasting menu (it must be reserved online). The tasting menu is where Williams demonstrates the creativity and brio that have made him such a remarkable chef.
To start, a gooey squashini, a squash-zucchini hybrid, that was coddled in a crispy tempura shell to create a vegan mozzarella stick seasoned with dried lime.
His egg custard chawanmushi, steamed and served in a small bowl, was an umami bomb, topped with sautéed morels, shio-koji radish and seaweed-y togarashi spices with more benthic funk lurking beneath the surface. Sink your spoon into the bowl to scoop up a puddle of dashi, mirin, shiro dashi and white soy sauce.
The showcase seafood dish on a recent menu was an olive-oil poached sablefish served with cherries fat-washed in sesame oil, minty shiso leaves and creamy mayocoba beans, similar to navy beans. The fish was cooked textbook-perfect, with some relish flavors, yet it lacked the oomph and the textural play of other dishes.
Tomo is often at its best when it tries to shatter your preconceived notions of how ingredients should taste or be served. Take Williams’ asparagus dish for example.
The briny asparagus taste as if they were harvested from an oyster bed instead of from the Yakima field of Alvarez Organic Farm. The spears are served three ways — blanched in asparagus stock, roasted and pickled — for an array of unexpected flavors, and snappy and creamy bites. Logs of asparagus pile over a dashi aioli, then are dusted with dried roe and dill. It’s an asparagus hall-of-famer, one of the most creative homages I’ve tasted to our state’s beloved vegetables.
Tomo sometimes showcases meat. Mine were strips of 21-day, dry-aged tri-tip that were slow cooked and then kissed over the amber sticks of binchotan charcoal for a smoky finish.
On another visit in late spring, the beef was an Asian twist on the French steak au poivre. The kitchen crusted the age steak in sansho peppercorns for a numbing, tingling sensation often associated with a mala Sichuan dish.
Both renditions were profoundly beefy.
When it comes to service, the attentive waitstaff can deftly expound on satsuma and other unfamiliar ingredients without resorting to their Moleskin notes. They also don’t aggressively try to upsell diners on the $68 wine pairing, as so many high-end restaurants do, especially if you’re on a date.
Food gets paired with quirky natural wines that wouldn’t seem to work with some of these plant dishes, but they do. Still, I wondered if a cheap lager would have worked just as well, if not better, for half of these dishes.
Many Tomo patrons are ready to crown its shaved ice kakigori the dessert of our hot summer. They may not be off base.
The dessert’s allure and intrigue come partly from the unexpected textures piled together. A strawberry curd that tastes like a tangy, French-style yogurt swirls atop strata of fresh and roasted strawberries. And beneath them sits a mound of delicately shaved ice that’s been soaked in a tamarind syrup. Finally, the ensemble is dusted with dried, fruity habanada peppers. The result is a deceptively complex, sweet-and-sour dessert. It’s a bracing, even exhilarating change from the usual creamy, dense chocolates or gelatos that litter most restaurant dessert menus.
For those who can’t score a reservation, you can pounce on the 22 open seats that Tomo now offers for walk-ins. However, be prepared: the rotating items on à la carte menu offered for these seats often feel more like slight “bar bites”; they don’t add up to a meal, unless you really add them up. On a recent visit, one such item was a few blistery pork rinds with a bean dip that seemed superfluous.
Sometimes, though, items on the prix fixe menu and the walk-in menu overlap, and walk-in diners should order those dishes. A walk-in diner might get lucky and score one of the few marbled steaks offered for the early birds. One evening I arrived with a companion to find on the menu a 2.5-pound Washington wagyu New York strip ($145) that could have fed at least three diners. The pan-seared slab was accompanied by charred onions, pepitas sauce, lemon wedges and tortillas from Milpa Masa in West Seattle. But all those fixings didn’t add up to a harmonious taco.
Don’t insult this wagyu by making tacos. The buttery meat tasted best without sauce—a clean, salty bite absent of the least gristle. The fat that capped the end of each slice resisted for a moment, then dissolved, coating the mouth. Tomo may preach about eating your veggies, but damn if it doesn’t know how to cook a mean steak.