There’s still a hush in the dining room, even after the first cluster of patrons take their seats at the long kitchen counter. Chef Hiro Tawara puts the final touches on the night’s first course, already plated on a cluster of emerald-green ceramic dishes shaped like leaves.
“This is fresh ocean smelt, in season from Puget Sound, fresh this morning from the market,” he says as he presents each plate, the silvery little fish barely an outline beneath a bright confetti of radish and Walla Walla onions and…is that...yes, a little cilantro. “It’s marinated in sweet dashi vinegar sauce. You eat the whole thing.”
The chef-owner at Wa’z, the kaiseki restaurant that opened earlier this year in Belltown’s Tilikum Place plaza, always looks slightly quizzical, his features offset by hair that’s mussed upward as if he raced here in strong winds. Watching Tawara explain his traditional Japanese food by way of Northwest seasons to eager diners on the other side of a counter recalls another chef who crossed the Pacific to put his imprint on Seattle’s culinary culture.
Tawara is, indeed, an alum of Shiro Kashiba, who first served Seattle sushi more than half a century ago. But this chef wants to familiarize his adopted city with kaiseki, one of Japan’s oldest forms of fine dining. Kaiseki is rooted in sixteenth-century tea ceremonies; the traditions governing each course are dizzying in their precision. Wa’z serves just one set menu for the entirety of each month, a series of careful little courses designed to express this particular moment in the progression of a season.
Book a table in the dining room and you’ll get a smaller, six-course version of the monthly menu, its explanations delivered by servers who range from a deeply knowledgeable woman in kimono to a dude who speaks no Japanese but is so affable it’s hard to fault him for pulling out his notes to explain our food. He was, however, aces in helping me navigate the categories of the multi-section sake menu. Dinner at Wa’z is leagues more enjoyable at the counter. For $110, you get eight courses, rather than six, with descriptions directly from Tawara or his two chefs.
Tradition dictates that the hassun course—an array of bites that sets the meal’s seasonal theme—belongs on a platter exactly eight inches long. Tawara, like many a modern kaiseki chef, ditches the fine print and adapts the overall framework to suit his own vision. His hassun for August’s “celebration of midsummer” menu, for instance, arrives on a lilypad-shaped plate, five bites clustered so tightly their formation almost resembles a blossom: tender steamed duck with a drizzle of mustard, one scallop perfectly seared, a piece of pressed sushi topped with crab that flickers with ginger, and a sweet-and-vinegar salad of cucumber and saltwater eel in a shot glass–size china teacup. The chef uses metal-tipped chopsticks to place the final slice of fried lotus root on top.
There’s no umami bomb or spicy sauce deployed in the courses that follow, just supremely subtle food that challenges diners to slow down and appreciate how beautifully a sweet fig lends itself to tempura, or the nuance that a gelee of reduced dashi can bring to an otherwise spare arrangement of chilled summer vegetables. Wa’z is more about theater than decadence. But in a moment of safe, crowdpleasing restaurants, this restaurant is bold even if its food is quiet.
When Tawara and his wife landed in Seattle in 2005, trading Kyoto for unknown adventures in the Northwest, he told the guy at passport control that his occupation was “Japanese chef.”
“Oh, you’re a sushi chef!” the man exclaimed as he stamped Tawara’s passport. “I love sushi.”
Tawara didn’t yet have the English skills to correct him, and his decade of specialized training didn’t translate to a town with zero kaiseki restaurants. He did make sushi initially, but Americans’ taste for rule-bending, sriracha-drizzled rolls was an adjustment. Eventually Tawara landed at Shiro’s in Belltown, back when founder Shiro Kashiba was still involved. He watched his boss charm hesitant sushi bar customers into their first-ever taste of uni. Witnessing how Seattleites responded to Kashiba’s good-natured education made him think this could happen with kaiseki.
Tawara plots each month’s meal as if it were a movie or piece of music, with a burn as slow as a season of Mad Men. After the hassun’s introductory excitement, the soup course represents comfort food. The yakimono, or grilled course, is a main event at its most subtle—a small piece of black cod marinated in miso beneath a grilled green pod of a single fava bean one month, salmon with perfect crispy skin, the next.
Most narratives, says the chef, benefit from a twist: The sashimi course arrives as cold, minimalist squares of albacore tuna and black sea bass from Neah Bay. On the left side of the slate platter, the protein fanned out in a blue and white dish shaped like a shell sure isn’t sashimi. Three perfect strips of A5, the premier grade of wagyu, its melting richness just right with the subtle acid of a cucumber and vinegar garnish. “Please enjoy as is,” Tawara tells the counter (translation: no soy sauce).
Of course, when food’s this simple, anything less than transcendent goes over with a boring thud. Each meal has a course or two where, whether in concept or execution, subtle devolves into forgettable.
Even more bold than trying something new: Attempting something that already proved a challenge. Another kaiseki restaurant, Naka, opened on Capitol Hill back in 2015. In less than two years, owner Shota Nakajima reconfigured it into a more casual restaurant, Adana. He conferred some advice upon his successor to Seattle’s only kaiseki restaurant—Americans want larger portions than are strictly traditional. Tawara also noticed Seattle’s aversion to restaurants where you have to dress up. Tawara’s spin on kaiseki—counter seating, good drinks, the ability to chat among yourselves between courses—is the more casual kappo style. At Wa’z, the menus are printed in English and Japanese; whoever answers the phone greets you in both languages, too.
And yet Tawara doesn’t limit himself to Japanese ingredients, or even ones from the Northwest; he employs key limes and okra and might wrap up a meal with a matcha affogato over caramel ice cream. Adapting his training to the city around him might be the most classic kaiseki move of all.