Since it opened in September last year, everyone's creamed their jeans over former Canlis wunderkind Brady Ishiwata Williams' new White Center spot, TOMO, which is so fancy, it doesn't even have a sign because you're just supposed to know. When I finally tailcoated my way in last week, at the top of my list was the chilacayote squash starter that's turned up on local "best things I ate in 2021" food writers' summaries.
(What actually is a chilacayote squash? No one knows. Still had to have it. Reportedly, it's in the pumpkin family but has a totally different texture than most squashes and refuses to crossbreed with other cucurbita. It's an unsquash. My desire intensified with each Wikipedia paragraph.)
Okay. So. TOMO is next to Taboo Adult Video on 16th and 98th, by Beer Star. Make sure you say, "Uhhh?? UMMM??? Is this TOMO???" when you walk in and then stand there in the foyer blocking all the foot traffic like a big dumb Christmas ham, as I did. They say yes and sit you down, and then for 78 bucks, you get a five-course prix fixe, either veggie or meaty, plus usually an amuse-bouche or two. And they start bringing you Michelinesque food sculptures, explained only vaguely on the menu by three or four ingredients.
Prepare your brain for razzle-dazzle because Brady's fucking bringing it. They don't hand out James Beard awards for nothin'. The first dish they brought out when I went looked like a bowl of colorful aquarium rocks, but holy shit, it was the unsquash! It'd been marinated in shio koji, roasted, pickled, chopped up, and dumped in a bowl of cream, along with other bright pickled-veg friends. Floating on the cream's surface were dots of dandelion oil and smoky chilhuacle negro pepper oil. A pretty bowl of earth-toned confetti. Surprise is a powerful comedic device, eh, and we all busted out laughing.
I mean, it's good! It's not what people like about squash, but it's likable. It's not even close to the best thing I ate in that meal, much less all year. The elotes at Best Roasted Corn Stand across the street are better than that squashbowl, which is not to say the squash is bad, only that those elotes are super good. I was delighted by the presentation and the fact that there was a squash I didn't know, but that bowl of weird cereal isn't going anywhere near my best-of list.
There was other squash, fortunately. The pork collar main was two dainty meat rectangles with two kinds of nonpickled pumpkin, petite but luscious. Weathervane scallops wearing little caramelized cabbage hats and a smear of geoduck XO sauce were a standout. From the vegetarian menu, there's a savory chawanmushi egg custard with fermented radishes that wowed my devoutly unvegetarian boyfriend. Everyone liked the sunchokes, which were described as "sunchoke, bergamot, salsify," but there was an unexplained pool of rich, bearnaise-type sauce and then some other kind of mystery-but-delicious brown sauce hiding underneath steamed chard, and you dunk the chokes 'n' chard in the saucy morass. No clue what was in there, but sure.
We four all shared the six-oyster "supplement" to the prix fixe, and those sumo kumos were just flawless. (Get it? They're kumamotos but big. I love whoever made up this joke.) Light and melon-scented, they're served with yuzu koshō and lardo.
Now we're at the tip part that I teased up top, because the other "supplement" on the menu was the kakigōri dessert for two, and we saw it at the table next to us and couldn't peel our eyeballs off it. It looked like a cabbage half-covered in whipped cream, or maybe a bowling ball-sized tennis ball. One of the neon green ones.
"Ay!" I barked at this couple, who were Lady-and-the-Tramping over their huge romantic dessert, before I knew what was happening. "What even is that??"
"Apple" and "fennel" were all we caught from the mumbles of these poor alarmed people who were definitely not going to make eye contact with us. Sorry, folks, sorry. But right away, we recognized those words from the dessert supplement part of the menu.
"But what is it?" I asked my dinnermates worriedly. "What's under the whipped cream? It could be anything under there. Do we have that? Are we getting one of those??" None of us knew what the word kakigōri meant, but my friends assured me that we're getting the oyster supplement AND the kakigōri supplement. God damn, we'd better.
This thing is a fucking showstopper, folks. It's just a giant ball of delicate, snowlike shaved ice with apple, fennel, chamomile, and honey flavors, and then the cream isn't cream, it is CHEESE from Kurtwood Farms on Vashon Island. (It's been brought to my attention that it's sometimes served with grapes and a hazelnut praline drizzle, which is almost making me pass out to think about.) Also, the menu says it's for two, but there's plenty of flavored snow to go around—all four of us chowed on it in harmony, and our little wooden spoons didn't meet until the very end.
Almost a week later, we're all still murmuring in awe about that kakigōri. Just thinking about it is arresting—the memory of it can kinda, like, fuck up your workday.
TOMO has an exquisite cocktail and wine list as well—a highlight is the Ropa Sucia ("dirty clothes"), with amontillado, brandy, Michelberger Forest, and Montenegro, where the orange twist is clipped to the glass by a teeny tiny clothespin. They're thoughtful about what they're serving you too. My buddy Anna ordered a glass of port and the bar doesn't carry it, but as she was trying to come up with something similar from the wine list, the staff was right on it, thinking, considering the question along with her. "I guess I felt very cared for?" she mused afterward.
Look, if you want to pull a Dr. Frasier Crane on date night and you have the cash to drop on the prix fixe at TOMO, hey, why not—you'll have a fine, fancy time learning about esoteric squashes and unidentified sauce puddles. Once you do it, you probably won't need to again. The food's lovely to eat, but it's mostly about style and concept and novelty, which, y'know. We knew this going in, we get it, we enjoyed it, but… we were still kinda hungry when we left.
But if you don't feel like going in for a C-note and a half per head after drinks, tax, and gratuity, here is what you do. There are six seats at TOMO's bar, and you can't reserve them. You have to just show up. Do it on a quiet Tuesday night, bring a pal, and order some scallops and a chawanmushi custard from the bar menu, a rummy/coconutty Unincorporated cocktail (get it? to rep Rat City? in unincorporated King County?) or that Ropa Sucia with the baby clothespin, and a kakigōri dessert supplement. Or shit, just show up solo and eat the whole kakigōri by yourself. You'll have everything you need for an enchanted evening at TOMO right there*. And once you do this, like me, for life, you'll only have eyes for kakigōri.
*A little word of warning: The menu is changing all the time at TOMO, so I make no promises about what kind of Michelinesque food sculptures the restaurant will serve you.