It’s not often we experience something truly great for the first time and subsequently realize that it’d be hard to imagine life without it. Most notably, we’ve felt this way about Aesop soap, the Foo Fighters’ Bee Gees cover album, and Dot’s Pretzels. Tomo in White Center rightfully belongs in this category too.
This tasting menu restaurant with Japanese influences has an ability to coax intense flavor out of seemingly simple ingredients. We’re talking about plates like barley porridge with eggplant and dill pollen that tastes like a meatless Reuben soup, candy-like charred squash in a puddle of tangy cream with polka dots of dandelion and chilhuacle oils, and smoky pork collar with kohlrabi ribbons and tender sea lettuce (a.k.a. our new favorite algae). You can choose between an omnivore tasting and a vegetarian tasting, which are both $86 a person and involve mostly identical dishes with a couple of different ones peppered throughout. At times, they simply swap animal protein out for equally-as-meaty mushrooms.
photo credit: Adam Joseph Wells
To match these exciting bites is the just-as-thrilling space. The restaurant features a dark, narrow hallway abuzz with conversation, stripes of light that add stark contrast to the brunette walls, and speakers that blast whale noises in the wood-paneled restroom. Turns out that washing your hands to the soundtrack of ambient humpback vocalizations is a calming reprieve from the dining room chatter.
And yet, the energy at Tomo is much different during weekend lunch service. The daytime light makes the dining room softer, and there’s a calm feel with happy Jack Johnson-kind of music you’d probably listen to while cooking breakfast or cleaning your living room on a lazy Sunday. That same contrast can be seen when comparing the fancier dinner dishes to the a la carte plates at lunch—like sunchokes roasted to the point of sticky caramelization with fresh persimmon, a grilled pork rib chop with melted leeks coated in rich butter sauce, and a fried egg with lamb belly bacon and herbed salsa verde. The real midday must-order, though, are the arepas with milky stracciatella and prosciutto. Splitting open the toasted cake while popcorn-scented steam wafts out would be outstanding enough, but then you get to make a mini sandwich with Italian cured ham and cold cheese. While $26 is quite steep for a solitary order of these, a meal without them would be a mistake.
Reservations are not easy to come by. Typically on the first of the month at 10am, bookings open up online for the next month, and they go fast. You could also try your luck for one of the six bar seats that are first come, first served. But once you’re in, even though dinner can last upwards of three hours, Tomo serves the kind of meal you want to replay in slow-motion in order to savor each bite. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this place is meant for your next big night out. One that starts with a crisp salted kiwi tartlet and should end with a $20 sorrel kakigori add-on topped with hazelnut butter and funky whipped cheese.
Some dishes are Tomo mainstays, but the menu is subject to seasonal changes.
Chilacayote Squash, Dandelion, Chilhuacle Negro, Cream
Doubling as an edible ecosystem, everything in this phenomenal bowl needs each other in order to thrive. The stracciatella cream cools down the heat from chili oil, which amps up the charred squash bits, which add a sweetness tempered by earthy dandelion oil, which lightens the cream with an herbal kick. Teamwork.
Weathervane Scallop, Potato, Cabbage, Geoduck XO
If Tomo’s chef was given scallops, potatoes, cabbage, and geoduck in a Chopped basket, this dish would win him the 10 grand. This is our favorite non-vegetable plate here. Transforming geoduck into a salty, deep xo sauce is the best use of this unfortunate-looking clam, and it pairs ridiculously well with perfectly-seared scallops, roasted cabbage leaves, and a velvety potato puree.
One of the options on the vegetarian tasting menu, this delicious custard swims in a comforting broth, topped with something like a fermented radish or tender mushrooms. It’s just as great as the meat dishes.
Tomo’s $20 mound of shaved ice changes the way we think about frozen water. The components vary by season, but let’s talk about the one from November 2021: sorrel-flavored ice, fluffy Dinah’s cheese from Kurtwood Farms, and a drizzle of hazelnut butter. The bottom essentially tastes like cold lawn clippings, but upon scooping a bite with the camembert-like whip and sweet-salty spread, we become the Surprised Pikachu meme.
Stracciatella, Market Greens, Prosciutto, Arepas
Toasted on the outside and cakey on the inside, these weekend lunch-only arepas are steaming hot, and smell like yellow-dyed movie theater butter. And after stuffing them with chilled stracciatella, lightly dressed greens, and prosciutto, this is the best thing we’ve eaten here. Our only complaint is that $26 gets you an order of four little DIY ham and cheese sliders, and if you’re with more people than that, spending $52 to have a second plate feels pretty silly. But ultimately worth it in the long run.
Lamb Belly, Salsa Verde, Fried Egg
We love how the lamb belly bacon melts together with the bright herbs in the salsa verde. A thick, runny egg yolk is the bridge between the two. Another lunch standout.