Review

When Tomo Broke the Internet

Brady Ishiwata Williams’s new spot in White Center defies description and draws a crowd.

By Allecia Vermillion May 16, 2022 Published in the Summer 2022 issue of Seattle Met

The supplemental kakigori course gets the rotating seasonal treatment.

Image: Kyle Johnson

One night at Tomo, I spotted an old friend seated near me on the back patio, its walls sheathed in plexiglass. Her table ordered the kakigori, an optional extra course of Japanese-style shaved ice. That month, it came topped with sorrel juice, grapes, and a savory custard of Dinah’s Cheese from Kurtwood Farms. 

She caught my eye after the first bite and slashed her finger across the base of her neck in the international sign for “friends don’t let friends order shaved ice with cheese on top.”

I had obtained my reservation that night from another friend, who had changed her plans, but congratulated me on my good fortune for being able to sample that amazing kakigori, her favorite dish thus far of two meals at Tomo.

I didn’t order the kakigori that night. I regret it still. How many bowls of ice evoke such strong emotions? 

Strong emotions of all kinds seem inherent to the restaurant that Brady Ishiwata Williams opened last September, after six award-spangled years at Canlis. His tenure there included some of the most subtly electric food in the restaurant’s seven decades, and his own realization that Seattle is home, even after working among New York’s dining luminaries. 

Five-course set menus (traditional and vegetarian) start with a bite-size snack.

Image: Kyle Johnson

When Williams announced plans for Tomo, he had vision aplenty: five-course set menus, with the bill a relatively modest $68. He chose an address in White Center, adding microseasonal tasting menus and a mostly natural wine program to the 16th Avenue strip, already rich with great banh mi and tacos, adult videos, pinball and ice cream, and an emerging gay bar scene. But even weeks before the opening, Williams cheerfully acknowledged, “we have no clue what we’re going to make.” Creating within season, without a script, would be part of the fun.

A chef of Williams’s caliber would generate buzz for just about any project, in just about any economy. But Tomo offered ambition and excitement, not to mention a format that felt like a path forward for an industry often mired in its own legacies. In a very challenging time, Tomo was a sign that things would get better. Amid global tumult, hesitancy about dining out, and a national need to soothe ourselves with pizza, Williams hoped people would catch on over time. 

Instead, the online waitlist for a reservation reached 15,000 names before the restaurant opened. “There was no easing into this,” he says, choosing his words carefully when discussing all this attention. 

Ambition and affordability usually occupy separate checks. Putting those two things together? Anyone with a passing interest in restaurants wanted to see what this place was about, even before the kitchen had established that for itself. After so much hype, in Seattle and well beyond, any diner who landed one of Tomo’s 48 seats arrived with the highest of expectations.

The staff considers Tomo’s lighting as carefully as its menu.

Image: Kyle Johnson

Despite this customer crush, Tomo hit plenty of highs from the start. It’s always nighttime in the dining room, where onyx walls backdrop modern chairs of the blondest ash. Low light emanates from directions you don’t expect—the baseboard, behind the banquettes, and all corners of the sculptural back bar. On September’s opening menu, a coriander broth redefined a tight formation of chilled Sungold tomatoes. Ribbons of grilled summer squash curled around hemp pudding; slices of albacore glistened in a coating of shokupan crumbs. Dinner was elegant, fascinating, delicate—and mostly vegetables. On the way home, I debated whether I was still hungry, or if my id simply equates “tasting menu” with “uncomfortable levels of fullness.” 

Some early-on diners waited long stretches for their next course. Others came expecting something like Canlis. “We’re not for everyone,” Williams acknowledged before Tomo even opened. He and his partner, Jessica Powers, gave extensive consideration to all the ways Tomo could make diners comfortable—the chairs, the price point, the style of service. But the kitchen had carte blanche to push itself in interesting directions.

 

“Is this a Japanese restaurant?” my dining companion wondered aloud, toying with the delicate chopsticks that arrive at every place setting along with a knife, fork, and spoon. His question was mostly rhetorical. Tomo surely draws from Williams’s heritage—he named the restaurant after his grandmother, Tomoko, as well as the Japanese word for “friend.” He serves kakigori, even procured Japanese toilets for the restroom with a control panel fit for a Tesla. But aguachile or local cheese is just as likely to show up in a dish as shio koji or sesame. “I grew up with chopsticks on the table,” says Williams. “I will eat spaghetti with chopsticks.” 

Chawanmushi, Japan’s savory steamed egg custard, arrived hidden beneath a float of persimmon-colored liquid, the way you might garnish a cocktail with a splash of champagne. The custard beneath was perfectly set, but recast as something new and complex, indisputably worth scraping every last bit from the tiny bowl.

“Honestly? We had some radishes left over from lunch,” Williams says. The kitchen fermented them, but he didn’t like the texture of layering shaved radish on top of soft custard. They tried blitzing the radishes with some shio koji and togarashi Williams gets from Japan. (It’s “super floral and not shelf stable,” he says, a short-lived aromatic burst akin to fresh-ground pepper.) A lot of Tomo’s dishes have trial-and-error origin stories like this. It’s the process he envisioned before his restaurant became the Seabiscuit of Seattle’s pandemic dining scene.

Tomo’s prices went up $10, a reflection of current food costs. Heftier opening snacks like croquettes or a plate of duck prosciutto help bolster delicate portion sizes. Courses flow in a steady rhythm. The value is still unreal. And Williams still doesn’t have a pat answer for the sort of food he makes. 

Some dishes are tightly pinpointed, like winter’s bowl of confetti-size chilacayote squash, by turns roasted, pickled, or marinated in shio koji, layered in a pool of spent cream with drops of dandelion oil. It looks like a dessert terrazzo, but unleashes smoky, tart, and salty flavors. Chef de cuisine Diana Mata García showed our table one of the dried chilhuacle negro chiles from Oaxaca that made these flavors possible. She and Williams worked together at Canlis, and before that in New York, at Blanca, the two-
Michelin-starred tasting menu hidden within a Brooklyn pizzeria compound. Their creative synergy is deep and clear.

The squash dish ranks among Tomo’s most-tinkered creations, which is saying a lot. “I want people to have a unique experience every time they come here,” says Williams. “Maybe one or two dishes are a little rough around the edges, but it’s still interesting and dynamic and hopefully delicious.” 

Brady Ishiwata Williams leads a kitchen that gets creative with the seasons.

Image: Amber Fouts

Lately, dishes skew less precise, but even more interesting, like Tomo’s version of steak au poivre: Juices of a dry-aged tri-tip mingle with a creamy sauce zinged with sansho peppercorns, tingly kin to the ones from Sichuan. The kitchen is shaking off the pressure of those expectations, spoken and unspoken, visibly more free to just have fun and put the results out there. Finally. “It’s like an expansion team,” says Williams, who played hockey before entering the kitchen. “It’s a staff that’s never worked together.”

The wine program’s been having fun from the puck drop. Its director, Andy Comer, was a vice president at Tommy Bahama before he promoted wine from obsession to profession. Tomo’s massive list—heavy on female vintners, minimal on intervention—offers but a handful of glass pours. But few tenured somms have Comer’s ability to take you on an unexpected drinking adventure.

One night that happened to be an epiphany of a carbonic French syrah, which was nearly empty when our kakigori arrived. That month’s version was doused in a syrup of preserved blackberries; it glowed beneath a mountain of basque cheesecake, its torched sweetness turned into a fluffy mousse. This too was a creative process that began with an extra cheesecake from the weekend lunch menu (currently on hiatus) and involved an impromptu spin in the Vitamix. Maybe the best way to describe Tomo’s food is simultaneously sweet and savory, with cultures colliding in unexpected ways against a backdrop of Northwest seasonal shifts. Undeniably something you’d recommend to a friend. 


How Do I Even Eat Here?

A new batch of reservations goes live on Tock the first day of each month.

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