When Toshiyuki Kawai left Osaka, Japan, 14 years ago he couldn’t speak much English and everything he knew about cooking he’d learned from his mom.
Pursuing his passion, he enrolled in the culinary-arts programs at South Seattle College. His plan was “to work for an Italian chef at an Italian restaurant and a French chef at a French restaurant.”
His first job was at La Rustica in West Seattle where he learned to make bread, sausages and pasta. He interned under Thierry Rautureau at Rover’s, then worked at Rautureau’s bistro, Luc, when it opened next door. He cooked at Spring Hill and RN74 too, but his most formative experience was working with Shaun McCrain at the Book Bindery. “He’s my chef,” says Kawai.
Hours: Dinner 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-9:30 p.m. Friday & Saturday
Prices: $$$$ (starters $11-$18; mains $18-$30)
Drinks: Wine, sake, beer
Service: alert and informed
Parking: on street
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
Book Bindery closed when McCrain left to develop Copine, the Ballard restaurant he eventually opened last year. Kawai moved on to Harvest Vine, and he too began a search for the right spot to open his own restaurant. He found it in Mount Baker.
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Iconiq debuted in March in the spot that for the past five years was Á La Bonne Franquette. The minimally adorned, narrow storefront seats just under 50. A counter spans the length of an open kitchen connecting two dining areas in the front and back. From a few tables in the rear, and especially from seats at the small bar, you can see the Seattle skyline in the distance.
Iconiq has the relaxed demeanor of a neighborhood place. You hear the staff say welcome back enough to suggest it already has regulars. Yet the food and service has the refinement you expect when appetizers are in the double digits and entrees hit $30.
Kawai limits his hyper-seasonal, boutique menu to about four starters and five mains. Eating your way through them, it’s possible to track the influence of his mentors, but his Japanese heritage is at the heart of every dish.
Many show off the elegant simplicity and painstaking precision he learned at Book Bindery. You can draw a straight line from there to Kawai’s gorgeous vegetable terrine. A cabbage-wrapped cross-section revealed okra, beets, cauliflower and more, set like brilliantly hued gemstones in jelled vegetable stock. Vibrant carrot coulis, red shiso sorbet and herb oil dotted the plate.
Both the braised beef cheek and the beef tongue cutlet wouldn’t be out of place on the menu at Luc, except that here the tongue is braised in red wine and soy sauce before being breaded and fried, and red miso sweetens the bordelaise-like sauce for the pull-apart tender cheeks. His take on a Nicoise salad uses mizuna, a poached egg and black olive tapenade.
Kawai is a maestro at risotto. One verdant sea of mizuna, dill, chervil and parsley had Parmesan, plus a splash of lemony soy sauce to complement the dish’s crowning touch: tender, crusty tatsuta-age (deep-fried) sweetbreads.
His seasonal risotto is always vegetarian. Bubbles of ginger foam veiled one tinted ruby red with beets and creamed with a bit of goat cheese. Lately the beets have been swapped for morels and English peas, and ginger foam was traded for yuzu.
Forbidden Rice is also prepared risotto-style. The mix of black and white grains gets a kick from yuzu kosho seasoning. Partnered with kelp pickles and miso-marinated kinki, a delicate fish with a texture as slippery as butter, the dish is one of the most original and arresting on the menu.
“Japanese clam chowder” is also unique. Baguette toasts slathered with seaweed butter accompany a generous bowl of clams steamed in white miso and soy milk broth. Like chowder, it’s smoky with bacon, but daikon replaces diced potatoes.
A trio of seared sea scallops rode in on a sort of vegetable soup, waving a crisp flag of bacon over sweet fennel, romanesco and fresh peas awash in a pleasingly bitter salted plum broth.
For “shabu shabu iberico” Kawai lightly poaches slices of jamon iberico in saltwater and arranges them atop a cylinder of couscous embedded with vegetables. It’s a novel idea that needed some tinkering, which it’s getting. Kawai tells me he’s now using a better quality ham and changed the sauce from a yuzu-miso reduction to Madeira and mustard.
The 37-year-old Kawai describes himself as a listener with a flexible mind. When the kitchen closes, he visits each table to chat with diners, something he no doubt learned from the gregarious Chef in the Hat (Thierry Rautureau) and that too few chefs bother to do anymore.
His team at Iconiq is small. They support each other well but it doesn’t take much to upend the equilibrium if someone fails to show up on a busy night, as happened on one of my visits.
While I observed waiters patiently fielding menu queries, frequently refreshing plates and utensils, even taking time to pour small tastes of several different sakes for a couple perplexed by the choices, I had no idea they were also taking turns in the dish pit. It made their composure all the more impressive.
At the end of that trying evening, guests were offered a complimentary glass of plum sake to make amends for any lapses or lag time between courses. In truth, I had appreciated the meal’s measured pace.
Your meal might close with a plate of three French cheeses, all ripe and ready to eat with hazelnuts, dried currants and lacy crostini. We scored the last of a new dessert they were previewing for summer: chocolate mousse with rhubarb in plum sake gelee. Like everything else I ate at Iconiq, it made me want to come back for more.