Ettan, Palo Alto
What a difference a few months makes. In late February, I was invited in as a guest to try the splashy new Ettan restaurant that had just debuted in downtown Palo Alto. Little did I know that would be the very last time I’d dine inside a restaurant for the foreseeable future.
So it was with a sense of warm familiarity tinged with a bit of melancholy that I returned to this modern Indian restaurant last week to pick up takeout.
The restaurant is 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. So it’s got style in spades, as well as serious cooking chops.
The striking entrance with its indigo doors, iron latticed screens, crystal chandeliers, and fanciful tiles still make a grand statement. And the food is still every bit as impressive, even if you can’t enjoy it on the restaurant’s rough-hewn ceramics and gleaming copper vessels at home.
All the sauces and chutneys come in separate containers so that the food doesn’t get soggy in transit. The garlic naan ($5) and Malabar paratha ($5) even come wrapped up in separate bags that look like vintage newspapers. The naan is less doughy and much crisper than most, with blistered edges. The paratha is lacy and layered like roti, and as crisp and buttery tasting as pastry.
It doesn’t take much to plate the red chili octopus ($14) on your own serveware to end up with something pretty dazzling looking. The exquisitely tender octopus has a real depth of spice owing to fermented chili and fragrant richness from curry leaf butter.
I remember enjoying the Kerala fried chicken ($15) at the restaurant — and how much it set my mouth aflame. It may not be as crisp when you have to lug it home instead, but the fire is still there. It’s a dish that will definitely make your palate sit up and take notice. But even if the level of spice sizzles from bird’s eye chiles, as well as even a buttermilk dressing that carries heat, you can’t stop eating this chicken. A small green salad with julienned apples offers a hit of brightness to refresh.
Tucked inside leaves and cooked over flames, sambal shrimp ($15) is like a little present that you get to unwrap at home. The shrimp get extra moist and juicy from being sealed inside the leaves as they cook. A sweet coconut sambal and a crunchy green papaya salad accompany it.
Speaking of coconut, do order the coconut rice ($5). In fact, get two orders of it. That’s how good it is. The basmati rice is not only cooked in coconut milk but tossed with grated coconut for very intense coconut flavor.
Fluffy basmati rice again stars in the Ettan chicken Pulao ($24). It’s akin to biriyani in that the seasoned rice is the star with cashews, fried onions, sprouts, and a drizzle of ghee. Dig underneath and there are fork-tender pieces of chicken thigh and drumsticks. Spoon on the accompanying cooling kiwi-yogurt raita and roasted red pepper gravy to dress up the rice as you like.
For butter chicken fans, the smoked version here ($22) features boneless thighs that have been smoked before being lavished with a creamy, tomato and butter sauce redolent of fenugreek’s almost clove-like warmth. For more buttery goodness, butter naan comes with this so you can dunk pieces into the plentiful pool of sauce.
Tava fried copra beef ($15) is a generous serving of tender beef flavored with black pepper and curry leaves. It comes with tart, spicy house-made pickles and the Malabar paratha, so you can enjoy some of the beef and pickles rolled up inside the bread to get a taste of everything in one bite.
Vegetarians will enjoy the wild mushroom “one pot” ($22), a melange of crisp-tender cauliflower rice, slow-cooked earthy mushrooms, jalapeno slices, and creamy gravy-like potato korma. You can enjoy everything mixed together. The fact that they were all cooked separately, though, lets them retain their individual character and integrity without blurring into a mishmash.
Pro Tip: When the restaurant first opened, its Ettan kheer ($10) got a lot of attention on the dessert menu, because it made note that it featured a “mystery ingredient.” Though not plated in a gorgeous blue glass like before, the dessert is available to-go with its elusive ingredient. The saffron-scented creamy rice pudding with caramelized balls of seasonal fruit (banana this time around) is a perfect way to douse the heat at the end of the meal. It’s cooling, comforting, and playfully fun. Try to guess the secret ingredient on your own. If you can’t, just email me if you really want to know what it is. I’ll give you one hint: It’s something you might find on a burger or featured in a classic French soup.
Braise, San Jose
Located in San Jose’s Willow Glen neighborhood, Braise is that type of intimate, lovable neighborhood restaurant that feels like a couple of old friends just got together to indulge their own whims of spirited cooking and shared it with anyone who wanted in.
That’s precisely what happened when high school friends Anthony “A.J.” Jimenez and Josh Hanoka opened Braise. For a time during the pandemic, it shuttered temporarily. But now it’s back with limited outdoor seating and a robust takeout menu. The timing couldn’t be better since it’s gained more attention, thanks to being featured recently on “Check, Please! Bay Area.”
It’s casual food that goes that extra step to be special. Just don’t expect to find every dish featured on that show — or even highlighted here — available now, as Jimenez, formerly chef of nearby The Table, likes to redo the menu every day, depending on what inspires him at the markets.
The cheddar beignets ($8), however, are a long-time staple. About the size of tater tots, they are equally golden and crisp, with the taste of sharp cheddar, enlivened with a dusting of nutritional yeast and a drizzle of honey.
They are ideal with a cocktail. And Braise is known for its libations, created by bar manager Syrus Fotovat. The cocktails often carry wacky names such as the “Fake Plastic Trees” ($14). This one sports the pink-salmon color of rose. Mezcal gives it wonderful smokiness, and tequila a throaty booziness, while Madeira and dry vermouth round out the edges. Peychaud’s bitters, as well as house-made orange bitters, insure this sip never veers anywhere near too much sweetness.
I make blistered shishitos and Padron peppers all the time at home. But here, the shishitos ($9) taste anew with thick, creamy black garlic aioli adding deep rich umami, the crunch of crushed peanuts, and a squirt of fresh lime to really wake everything up.
It may be a long time before we find ourselves hosting a cocktail party again. But the BLT lettuce cups ($13) will make you think, “Why didn’t I think of this?” It’s a perfect hand-held bite, with and iceberg lettuce leaf cradling Jimenez’s own sweet-smoky bacon lardons with a dollop of tomato jam and Green Goddess. It’s like a hand-held wedge salad minus the blue cheese.
It’s a good bet you’ve never had a PB&J ($15) like this one. It looks for the world like every kid’s school lunch. But inside is a filling of strawberry jam, peanut butter — and bone marrow. It’s salty, sweet, creamy, and almost eats like haute foie gras with fruit compote. It’s a grown-up guilty pleasure that’s a marvel.
Every neighborhood joint needs a good burger ($15) and this one fills the bill, especially with exceptional hand-cut Kennecbec fries that really taste of spring-grown potatoes. The patty is piled with cheese, lettuce, onion, pickle, and house sauce. The menu instructs that the burger to-go is available only “cooked through.” That may be more done than many of us would like, but it still ends up being juicy and satisfying.
The short rib stroganoff ($22) features tender — braised, of course — shards of beef and plenty of maitake mushrooms in a porcini cream sauce that’s wicked good. There’s a restrained hand with the sauce, leaving the pasta velvety enough without being weighed down.
A Durham Ranch quail ($17), is served whole, with its legs crisscrossed for even cooking and a natty appearance. It’s dressed in a Vietnamese nuac cham-like sauce with plenty of fish sauce and chiles.
The bone-in pork chop ($28) was huge, cooked perfectly tender and juicy, atop a bed of creamy polenta and swiss chard. A mustard seed jus was spooned overtop the pork to add little pops of piquancy.
Pro Tip: During Braise’s brief hiatus, Jimenez opened the restaurant for a special night last month, in which he served up margaritas, tacos, and his mom’s tamales — all to-go — to great success. He hopes to do another one at some point, so keep an eye out for that.
Fournee Bakery, Berkeley
A gem of a bakery across from the Claremont Club & Spa, Fournee was founded by Pastry Chef Frank Sally, who has taught at the San Francisco Baking Institute and has worked at Michelin three-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood.
If that doesn’t immediately scream treats with impeccable technique, I don’t know what does.
The breads are world-class — with deep fermented taste. The baguette ($3) is crisp throughout and makes for fine sandwiches. The teff & corn grits ($12 whole, $6.75 half) was new to me, but it’s destined to become a regular favorite now. It boasts a formidable crust with a soft, moist, spongy crumb. Teff lends it an earthiness, sesame seeds a nuttiness, and cornmeal a natural sweetness. This bread is loaded with complex grain flavor.
The classic croissant ($3.75) is very buttery and flaky, and shards scatter everywhere when you take a bite. The chocolate-almond croissant ($4.50) is twice-baked for extra crunch on the top and edges. With chocolate in the center and almond cream inside and on top, it’s the best of both worlds for those who can’t decide between a chocolate or an almond croissant.
The morning bun ($3.75) is crisp, flaky croissant dough tightly swirled in sugar. It gains added distinction with Ceylon cinnamon mixed in with the sugar, which nicely balances out the sweetness.
Fournee’s pastries aren’t saccharine in the least. The walnut coriander scone ($3.50) is made with buttermilk for moistness and a bit of tang. It’s very crisp on the exterior and crumbly within. It’s also suffused with walnut taste, given its generous amount of chopped walnuts throughout. The coriander also adds a lovely woodsy, herbal, slightly savory note.
The chocolate chip-oat cookies ($2.25 each) are extremely crisp with a little chewiness. They taste of full-on deep, deep, dark bittersweet chocolate. They are much less sweet than most chocolate chip cookies. In fact, my husband would have liked them sweeter. But I found them a nice change of pace.
You can’t order online. But you can call in your order. Or just take your chances by walking into the bakery; only two people are allowed in at one time, masked the entire time, of course.
Pro Tip: I’ve yet to time my trips here to try the fougasse ($8.50), but word is that it’s amazing. I mean, how could it not be when it’s an herbed sourdough fortified with duck fat and preserved lemons? My mouth is watering at the mere thought. It’s available Wednesday through Saturday, starting at 1:30 p.m.; and Sunday, beginning at 8 a.m. And of course, it goes quickly.