Chef Brady Williams of White Center’s Tomo is remarkably chill for someone about to open a much-hyped restaurant in the middle of a pandemic. He hangs out on the back deck of next door Beer Star and sips a sour leisurely, recalling a recent block party in the neighborhood that helped raise money for local businesses impacted by a fire earlier this summer. He and the Tomo staff grilled up about 300 Seattle dogs (some topped with wagyu chili) and got a chance to connect with their new neighbors. “It was a very positive time, with great music, and the community really showed up,” he says. “The staff had a lot of fun, and I was like, ‘Oh, God, it’s just really nice to cook and work together.’”
While such relaxed summer grilling days are waning, Williams is fired up about Tomo’s debut, an event that has been closely tracked since the chef left a coveted job as head chef at the esteemed Canlis in February. After putting some finishing touches on the small space on 16th Avenue SW this week, dinner service at the restaurant starts Thursday, September 9, with a menu and atmosphere that reflects some of the chef’s meticulous culinary background, family roots, and desire to encourage creativity.
All that starts with the food, which includes two options for five-course tasting menus for dinner at $68 per person (one vegetarian), as well as weekend lunch service. There’s an emphasis on seasonal produce purchased from local farms, and the flexibility in the Tomo kitchen gets to the point where Williams and his staff were still tinkering with the initial lineup just days before opening. “Being able to change things however you want is so freeing,” he says. “The last thing I want is for [the restaurant] to feel stagnant.”
The chef says he’s fallen in love with cucumbers from a Japanese farmer in eastern Washington, which he intends to help brighten up a lamb dish at dinner, then incorporate into a gooey duck ceviche dish at lunchtime. There will be a “katsu-style” albacore, dressed with breadcrumbs from dried-out Shokupan made onsite, plus plenty of ferments sprinkled throughout the meal. Tomo’s chef de cuisine Diana Mata Garcia (another Canlis alum) will bring influences from her Venezuelan heritage, including some arepas, as well as asado negro. And, for dessert, pastry chef Richard Garcia (no relation to Diana) is working on a melon, blackberry, and lemongrass kakigori, as well as an item with beeswax cream on top of roasted stone fruit and almond tart.
Pacific Northwest ingredients are prevalent at Tomo, alongside Venezuelan flavors, but Japanese food is a clear throughline, which comes from Williams’s maternal side of the family. The restaurant is primarily named after his 94-year-old grandmother, Tomoko Ishiwata Bristol, who raised Williams with his mom and has been a major culinary influence in his life. In fact, the chef’s earliest restaurant experience came from working at a diner she and his grandfather owned in Seal Beach, California. “It’s been really special to create this and share the pieces with her along the way,” he says, adding that Bristol is flying in for the restaurant’s opening. “It will be emotional. She’s gonna sit right at a table in the kitchen.”
The restaurant’s design — from Seattle and Amsterdam-based company Graypants — reflects some Japanese elements as well, a vibe that Williams describes as “Brutalist ryokan meets Hokkaido dive bar.” The chef didn’t want “a big garish sign” out front, so the exterior space — including a back patio — is understated, while the interior is soothingly dark, with shingles on the walls and lots of wood, which helps to dampen noise.
Meanwhile, there will be some unusual sounds in the bathrooms. Williams says one of the servers got the staff into whale vocalizations, and he thought it was “kinda trippy.” Playing off a trend he noticed in San Francisco restaurants a few years ago of developing quirky touches in bathrooms, the chef thought it might be fun to put “ambient sonar droning” in the restrooms (although he assures that the dining room will still have musical playlists).
The drinks list aims for variety, with 900 bottles of wine (225 different selections), alongside cocktails that take advantage of some preserved fruit, including a concoction with peach vinegar. There will be local beer and cider, although Williams insisted on adding Kirin Light, which is among his favorite affordable bottled beers. And non-alcohol options are on offer, too.
Though Williams comes from a fine-dining background, he’s taking a somewhat different tact with Tomo. In addition to honoring his grandmother, the restaurant’s name means “friend” in Japanese, and — like that afternoon grilling for the block party — the chef wants to address what community connections truly look like in hospitality. “It’s a question that we’re asking of ourselves: What does it mean to engage the neighborhood?” he says. “We’re not interested in being a special occasion restaurant — we want to make it a favorite restaurant, where you’re among friends.”
As Williams finishes his sour at Beer Star, he peeks behind to see the patio at Tomo coming together, and reflects that there are still so many factors that are up in the air. He didn’t fully book out the outdoor seating, fearing that there might be a repeat of last year’s wildfire smoke; and of course, it’s unclear what the general dining scene will look like as the delta variant continues to spread.
But the chef is optimistic about what the future holds, and hopes that the restaurant will be an approachable destination where innovative ideas can shine. “For more than a year, our brains have been dealing with trauma,” he says. “It’s a totally different ways of operating — survival versus the joy of creation ... We’re happy to be able to create something in the time of pandemic, something we’re proud of.”