Normally in this space, I try to tempt you with mouthwatering food photos and interesting insights into new restaurants that are worth a visit. However, these are anything but normal times.
So let me merely provide a diversion in this unprecedented time when we are all mostly stuck at home, and going a little stir crazy. It’s a reminder that when life does get back on track, we ought to help support our local restaurants and other businesses that will have a hard time getting back on their feet.
Last month, before widespread lock-down ensued, I was invited in as a guest of the just-opened Ettan, a splashy new modern Indian restaurant in downtown Palo Alto. It’s a collaboration between Ayesha Thapar, a real estate and fashion entrepreneur, and Srijith Gopinathan, executive chef of the Michelin two-starred Campton Place in San Francisco.
The soaring, three-story former Three Seasons restaurant space has been redone in striking shades of cerulean, indigo and bright white. The leaded glass domed ceiling remains a focal point, even more so with clusters of sparkly and sculptural chandeliers dangling from it. There’s more bling with the water pitchers and champagne buckets that are made of copper.
On a warm night, the outside patio is an especially inviting spot with its lounge-y loveseats and chairs, done up with plentiful pillows.
Gopinathan may do stunning tweezer-type dishes at Campton Place, but his menu at Ettan (whose name means “breath” in Sanskrit) is geared toward much more casual fare. Even so, there’s still a lot of thoughtfulness put into the presentations.
Cocktails are stylish, too. The “Just Like Money” ($15) is an herbaceous, smoky, slightly savory blend of gin, mezcal, and lime. It gets its pale green shade from cilantro and avocado simple syrup. It’s served with a flourish of smoked salt angled down one side of the glass. It’s eye-catching, though, you may end up with some salt on your fingers as you pick up the glass.
Gopinathan sources local sesame leaves ($14) for an irresistible finger snack. The leaves are fried and topped with mango, cilantro, and sesame brittle. It eats almost like Indian nachos, crisp and full of creaminess, along with fruity and spicy notes.
The leavened flatbread known as kulcha can be enjoyed a couple of ways, including stuffed with jalapenos and ricotta ($12), and served with kale chutney with a pronounced taste of sesame; and indulgently with shaved black truffles ($29) overtop. The soft, chewy flatbreads come with house-made butter, and mango chutney. The jalapeno one carries only a smidge of heat, so don’t fear. And the truffle one is as earthy and aromatic as you imagine.
You can even get a fun little paper cone filled with boiled peanuts, grated coconut and chilies. It might even make you wish for this instead of popcorn at the movies.
Even more addictive might be the puffed lotus seeds. They are almost like cheeseballs in texture — crisp yet so light an airy inside that they just dissolve.
The signature Ettan Salad ($14) is certainly Instagram-ready, as it arrives in a deep bowl with all the colors of the rainbow. The carefully arranged piles of green apple, avocado, tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, pepitas, toasted lentils, spiced yogurt, and mustard leaves gets mixed at the table by the server. Every bite is a riot of textures and flavors.
The spiciest dish on the menu might very well be the Kerala Fried Chicken ($15). The thighs are pounded, then coated in rice flour before being fried to a deep golden brown. They’re showered with fried shallots and slivers of bird’s eye chilies that turn up the heat even more. This KFC will definitely get your forehead and scalp warm. Your server will be only happy to bring you a little dish of plain yogurt, if you need to douse the flames.
Lamb shoulder ($17) gets marinated in yogurt and spices overnight before being skewered and seared on a 600-degree Icelandic hot stone. The tender lamb is served with creamy lime raita, pickled onion, and fennel, for a burst of brightness.
Every table is sure to order the Cast-Iron Monkey Naan ($16), which are like mini Parker House rolls. They’re golden and pillowy soft. What lifts it out of the realm of classic continental fare is the accompanying balchao shrimp sauce, which tastes of sweet tomatoes and has the concentrated taste of dried shrimp like the kind used in Chinese cooking.
Vellore Chicken Curry ($28) is a saucy, turmeric-and-fenugreek-scented curry dish with chunks of moist chicken, a true comfort food, especially with charred Kerala paratha alongside.
The Mung Bean “Paneeer” ($29) is a real eye-opener. It’s actually made from sprouted mung beans rather than dairy, so it’s vegan. It’s also much fluffier in texture. In fact, the graininess that’s characteristic of the traditional fresh cheese is missing here. This version is far smoother and creamier — a real plus. It comes hidden within a deep green sauce that gets its color from purslane. It’s delicious when smeared on the accompanying green garlic roti. I might not have ordered this dish ordinarily. So, I’m glad our server brought it out, because it’s a true winner.
Another captivating dish is the Local Black Cod ($33) slathered in Indian spices, which comes to the table wrapped in cauliflower leaves. The bundle is roasted. Tear it open to enjoy incredibly moist fish good to the last bite.
Desserts are creative — and even mysterious. The Dark Chocolate ($12) features one of my favorite combos — deep chocolate and bright orange. The dense creamy chocolate gets a splash of olive oil poured over at the table. Fresh kumquat slices, cara cara and blood orange segments, and dehydrated orange really intensify the citrus zing, too.
A light way to finish the evening is with the Passion Fruit ($12), a meringue split open and filled with tangy passion fruit sauce. A lychee milk ice, the texture of granita, adds an icy, refreshing note.
Or enjoy some chai — in soft-serve form. The Masala Chai Soft-Serve ($10) has all the sweet, creamy, and gently spiced appeal as the tea in a cup. Only it’s even better with the additions of candied ginger, banana, hazelnuts, and a drizzle of caramel.
The mystery comes in the form of the Ettan Kheer ($10). The menu even notes that this saffron-scented rice pudding garnished with balls of pear has a “mystery” ingredient. Your server will likely remain mum on what it is even if you inquire before ordering it. In fact, our server said so far only one person had guessed it correctly. I confess that I certainly didn’t, even after dipping a spoon in and concentrating mightily on it. I won’t spoil the fun. But let’s just say the ingredient is a vegetable not readily used in desserts.
Ettan may not have opened at the most auspicious time. But when we can all go back to eating out again with joy and abandon, it definitely should be on your radar.
Another New Modern Indian Restaurant in Palo Alto: Rooh