Wa’z: Kaiseki in Belltown a mixed experience

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1 of 5 At Wa’z, the premium kaiseki menu includes nanban-marinated smelt, onions, radish and cilantro. (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)
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2 of 5 The somen noodle soup with heirloom tomatoes and Key lime at Wa’z.
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3 of 5 Excellent miso-marinated black cod with a blistered pod of undercooked fava beans is the current grilled dish (yakimono) at Wa’z. (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)
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4 of 5 Seasonal sashimi is paired with wagyu tataki with a cucumber-vinegar sauce at Wa’z. (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)
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5 of 5 Wa’z is chef Hiro Tawara’s Japanese kaiseki restaurant in Belltown. (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)

At chef Hiro Tawara’s Japanese kaiseki restaurant in Belltown, dishes were meticulously arranged, but the cooking lacked the sustained excellence critic Providence Cicero expects at its price point.

Japan’s annual Star Festival commemorates the legend of two lovers, the weaver Orihime and the cowherd Hikoboshi, who represent two stars in the summer sky, Vega and Altair. When the pair shirk their duties, Orihime’s angry father, the emperor of heaven, banishes them to opposite sides of the Milky Way. After she cries him a river, her father relents, permitting them to meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, when magpies bridge the river with their wings for the lovers to cross.

The Star Festival inspired this month’s menu at Wa’z, chef Hiro Tawara’s Japanese kaiseki restaurant in Belltown. The holiday dates back many more centuries than kaiseki, which is 400 years old. It began as a light meal for Buddhist monks eaten with the tea ceremony — so light monks tucked warm stones under their robes to quell hunger pangs. Once royalty got interested, kaiseki evolved into a harmoniously choreographed, multicourse experience expressing seasonal appropriateness and cultural significance. The constants are a soup, a prepared main dish and rice. Chefs improvise around this structure.

Tawara’s interpretation is closer to stone-under-the-robe than imperial feast. That’s not to say I came away hungry, but apart from cameo appearances by such luxuries as uni and Japanese A5 wagyu beef, many of the ingredients were humble: sweet potato, corn, squash, okra, fish cakes, tofu. Every dish was meticulously arranged, each vessel was unique, the vision expressed was often poetic, but the cooking lacked the singularity and sustained excellence I expect when dinner approaches $200 with drinks, tax and 20 percent service included.

If you book one of the 12 counter seats, you are committing to eight courses at $110 per person, and you’ll have the fun of watching the cooking and plating. The same menu, minus two courses, is available for $60 at tables along the brick wall opposite the counter. On either side, service is extremely considerate, though occasionally discombobulated.

A new month brings a new menu. There is still time to experience this month’s Star Festival tribute. Its most fully realized dish is the somen noodle soup. The long, thin noodles are traditional festival fare and Tawara uses the dish to illustrate the legend. A gelled distillation of soy sauce and dashi shimmers like stars strewn across a Milky Way of noodles suspended in cool liquid dashi. Sliced cherry tomatoes form a bridge for the lovers, represented by two rounds of Key lime, placed on opposite sides of a sky-blue cut-glass bowl.

The dishes from June and July that most stuck with me involved soup (suinomo) or rice (gohan). June’s soup was a clear, delicate broth with yu choy, lemon zest and a lightly fried fish cake of shrimp and cod. It followed an inauspicious starter (sakizuke) and an uneven array of small appetizers (hassun). The starter, sesame (goma) tofu, is a staple of Japanese temple cuisine. Its texture was gummy and the uni on top had a metallic taste. A hydrangea blossom adorned the appetizer plate. One of its four bites was temari sushi, ball-shaped rice with a smooth cap of sliced squid painted pink (with red shiso sauce) to mimic a hydrangea petal. Rounding out those appetizers, in descending order of deliciousness, was a warm corn fritter, cold clammy kabocha squash and mushy baby octopus.

July’s appetizers were another mixed bag. Braised sweet potato and pressed sushi with saltwater eel were the best executed of the four. A whole spot prawn was grilled but ice cold and a bizarre uni shooter held a viscous, neon-green okra sauce that trounced the sea urchin. July’s starter was oysters marinated in sweet-and-sour nanban sauce, since swapped for similarly prepared ocean smelts, which sounds even better. Local albacore replaced the lightly seared Japanese porgy (kurodai) I had as half of this month’s sashimi duo. The fish is paired with seared slices of A5 wagyu dabbed with a palate-rousing cucumber-vinegar sauce.

Tawara uses very little meat. A traditional kaiseki menu normally doesn’t have any, he says, but he’s found that non-Japanese people enjoy some meat courses.

The 43-year-old Osaka native spent a decade working in kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto, where he was raised. After arriving in Seattle in 2005, he worked with Shiro Kashiba at Shiro’s Sushi, then with Taichi Kitamura at Sushi Kappo Tamura. Tawara workshopped his kaiseki concept doing pop-up dinners for three years preceding the March debut of Wa’z, where he is assisted by two cooks. One of them, Motoko Hayashi, is also an artist whose beautiful blown-glass cups are used here for sake. One of the two servers, kimono-clad Eri Yumura, also has experience in traditional Japanese restaurants in Kyoto. Rely on her guidance for sake or wine pairings.

Each meal brought delights and disappointments. Fried snapper fillet and toasted rice kept their crunch in a bowl of broth, but tempura-fried figs and morels collapsed into a soggy mess in a puddle of dashi sauce. Excellent miso-marinated black cod with a blistered pod of undercooked fava beans is the current grilled dish (yakimono). Last month’s shio koji king salmon was dry, but it had interesting companions: salmon roe, vinaigrette-dressed daikon, green strawberry and a handsomely knotted grilled garlic scape. The biggest slip-up occurred when I wasn’t served one of the courses — braised duck with eggplant and asparagus — an omission I didn’t catch until reviewing my notes the next day.

Kaiseki has been tried here before. Naka opened on Capitol Hill in 2015 and lasted a little more than a year before chef Shota Nakajima re-christened it Adana, pivoting to a more broadly accessible concept that was better received. Wa’z has fewer seats to fill and already has some regulars. A man who sat next to me said he goes every month. Another repeat customer, Tawara said, has been Shiro Kashiba, who I saw dining at a table one night.

A kimono ornaments the entrance to Wa’z, but the décor is otherwise austere. This month in the entrance you’ll also see flowered paper tags fastened to bamboo branches. They are wishes written by customers, another Star Festival custom. My wish for Wa’z is that it finds its way in the Emerald City.

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Wa’z ★½

Japanese

411 Cedar St., Seattle

206-441-7119

wazseattle.com

Reservations: required for the counter; recommended for a table

Hours: dinner Wednesday-Sunday 5-10 p.m.

Prices: $$$$ (six- or eight-course kaiseki menu $60-$110)

Drinks: sake, wine, beer, green tea

Service: cordial

Parking: on street or nearby lots

Sound: moderate

Credit cards: all major

Access: no obstacles

Providence Cicero is the Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at provi.cicero@gmail.com Follow her @provicicero on Twitter and Instagram.