Inside Brady Ishiwata Williams’ Tomo at White Center
One night at Tom, I spotted an old friend sitting next to me on the back patio, its walls sheathed in plexiglass. His table ordered kakigori, an optional side dish of Japanese-style shaved ice. That month, it was topped with sorrel jus, raisins and a savory Dinah’s Cheese custard from Kurtwood Farms.
She caught my eye after the first bite and cut her finger off the base of her neck in the international sign for “friends don’t let friends order shaved ice with cheese on top.”
I had gotten my reservation that night from another friend, who had changed her plans, but congratulated me on my luck getting to sample this amazing kakigori, her favorite dish so far of two meals at Tom.
I didn’t order the kakigori that night. I still regret it. How many bowls of ice cream evoke such strong emotions?
Strong emotions of all kinds seem inherent in the restaurant that Brady Ishiwata Williams opened last September, after six award-winning years at Canlis. His tenure there included some of the most subtly electric dishes in the restaurant’s seven decades, and his own realization that Seattle is his home, even after working among New York’s culinary luminaries.
When Williams announced plans for Tomo, he had vision aplenty: five-course menus, with a relatively modest bill of $68. He chose an address in White Center, adding micro-seasonal tasting menus and a mostly natural wine program to the 16th Avenue Strip, already packed with good banh mi and tacos, adult videos, pinball and ice cream, and a emerging gay bar scene. But even weeks before the opening, Williams happily acknowledged, “we have no idea what we’re going to do.” Creating in the season, without a script, would be part of the fun.
A leader of Williams’ caliber would generate buzz for just about any project, in just about any economy. But Tomo offered ambition and enthusiasm, not to mention a format that felt like a way forward for an industry often mired in its own legacy. At a very difficult time, Tomo was a sign that things were going to get better. Amid global uproar, reluctance to eat out and a national need to appease us with pizza, Williams hoped people would understand over time.
Instead, the online waiting list for a reservation reached 15,000 names before the restaurant opened. “There was no easing,” he says, choosing his words carefully when discussing all the attention.
Ambition and affordability generally occupy separate controls. Put these two things together? Anyone with a bit of an interest in restaurants wanted to see what this place was like, even before the kitchen established it on its own. After so much hype, in Seattle and far beyond, any restaurant that landed one of Tomo’s 48 seats arrived with the highest of expectations.
Despite this crush on customers, Tomo hit many heights early on. It is still dark in the dining room, where onyx walls adorn modern chairs of the blondest ash. Dim light emanates from directions you wouldn’t expect: the plinth, behind the bench seats and all corners of the sculptural rear bar. On the September opening menu, a cilantro broth redefined a tight formation of chilled Sungold tomatoes. Roasted summer squash ribbons wrapped around hemp pudding; slices of albacore shimmered in a layer of shokupan crumbs. Dinner was elegant, intriguing, delicate – and mostly vegetables. On the way home, I debated whether I was still hungry or if my ID just amounted to a “tasting menu” with “uncomfortable levels of fullness”.
Some early diners waited a long time for their next dish. Others expected something like Canlis. “We’re not for everyone,” Williams acknowledged before Tomo even opened up. He and his partner, Jessica Powers, thought long and hard about all the ways Tomo could make diners comfortable – the chairs, the price, the style of service. But the kitchen had carte blanche to push itself in interesting directions.
“Is it a Japanese Restaurant?” my dining companion wondered aloud, fiddling with the delicate chopsticks that come to each spot with a knife, fork and spoon. His question was mostly rhetorical. Tomo is surely drawing inspiration from Williams’ legacy – he named the restaurant after his grandmother, Tomoko, as well as the Japanese word for “friend”. He serves kakigori, even got himself a Japanese toilet for the restroom with a control panel worthy of a Tesla. But aguachile or local cheese is just as likely to appear in a dish as shio koji or sesame. “I grew up with chopsticks on the table,” Williams says. “I’m going to eat spaghetti with chopsticks.”
Chawanmushi, Japan’s savory steamed egg custard, arrived hidden under a float of khaki-colored liquid, like you might garnish a cocktail with a splash of champagne. The custard underneath was perfectly prepared, but recast as something new and complex, definitely worth scraping every last bit out of the little bowl.
“Honestly? We had some radishes left over from lunch,” Williams says. The kitchen was fermenting them, but he didn’t like the texture of layering grated radishes on top of custard. They tried blitzing the radishes with shio koji and togarashi that Williams gets from Japan (It’s “super floral and not steady,” he says, a short-lived aromatic burst akin to freshly ground pepper.) Many of Tomo’s dishes have stories of trial and error like this is the process he envisioned before his restaurant became the Seabiscuit of Seattle’s pandemic food scene.
Tomo’s prices have increased by $10, reflecting current food costs. Heavier opening snacks like croquettes or a platter of duck prosciutto help bolster delicate portions. Classes follow one another at a regular pace. Value is always unreal. And Williams still doesn’t have an answer for the type of food he cooks.
Some dishes are well-identified, like the winter bowl of confetti-sized chilacayote squash, alternately roasted, marinated or marinated in shio koji, layered in a pool of used cream with drops of coconut oil. dandelion. It looks like a dessert terrazzo, but releases smoky, tart and salty flavors. Chef Diana Mata García showed our table one of the dried black chilhuacle peppers from Oaxaca that made those flavors possible. She and Williams worked together at Canlis, and before that in New York, at Blanca, the two-
Michelin-starred tasting menu hidden in a Brooklyn pizzeria. Their creative synergy is deep and clear.
The squash dish ranks among Tomo’s most DIY creations, which is saying a lot. “I want people to have a unique experience every time they come here,” Williams says. “Maybe one or two dishes are a little rough around the edges, but it’s still interesting and vibrant and hopefully delicious.”
Lately, the dishes are less precise, but even more interesting, like Tomo’s version of pepper steak: the juices of a dry-aged tri-tip mingle with a creamy sauce seasoned with sansho peppercorns, much like those of Sichuan. The kitchen gets rid of the pressure of these expectations, said and unsaid, visibly freer to have fun and spread the results. To finish. “It’s like an expansion team,” said Williams, who played hockey before coming into the kitchen. “It’s a staff that has never worked together.”
The wine program has had a great time since the puck drop. Its director, Andy Comer, was vice president at Tommy Bahama before taking wine from obsession to profession. Tomo’s massive list — heavy on female winemakers, minimal on intervention — offers only a handful of glasses. But few titular sums have Comer’s ability to take you on an unexpected drinking adventure.
One night it turned out to be an epiphany of a carbonic French Syrah, which was nearly empty when our kakigori arrived. That month’s version was drizzled with a candied blackberry syrup; it shone under a mountain of Basque cheesecake, its flambé sweetness turning into a fluffy mousse. That, too, was a creative process that started with an extra cheesecake from the weekend lunch menu (currently on hiatus) and involved an impromptu rotation in the Vitamix. Perhaps the best way to describe Tomo’s food is both sweet and savory, with cultures colliding in unexpected ways against the backdrop of the Northwest’s seasonal changes. Definitely something you would recommend to a friend.
How can I even eat here?
A new batch of reservations is put online tack the first day of each month.