Dining Outside at Ethel’s Fancy
Despite his restaurant being much-anticipated and long-delayed, even Chef-Owner Scott Nishiyama was flabbergasted at how quickly reservations were snapped up when first released for the Sept. 3 opening of Ethel’s Fancy.
But such was the voracious appetite from the start for this downtown Palo Alto restaurant in the former Prolific Oven.
Not only has Nishiyama waited a long time for this, but so has the dining public that’s been eager to experience the very personal fare from a chef who honed his skills at the Michelin-starred establishments of Daniel in New York City, The French Laundry in Yountville, and Chez TJ in Mountain View.
The wait was definitely worth it, as I found out last week when I dined at one of the outdoor tables the restaurant has set up right by its front doors.
Nishiyama started work on his restaurant way back in 2017. Construction was to have begun in March 2020, but, well, we all know what happened then. So, he put a halt to it all, and waited out the worst of the pandemic until he saw a clear path forward. Even so, construction delays and supply chain issues hindered the project’s timeline.
The restaurant is named for his mother and grandmother, both named Ethel. With large skylights set into an exposed ceiling, it’s a light-filled space adorned with blond wood tables and a large polished stone countertop that affords seats at the bar and right in front of the open kitchen.
After garnering a degree in chemistry from MIT, Nishiyama acknowledges his family was startled when he turned around and said he wanted to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America to become a chef. Mostly, they were worried that he wouldn’t be able to support himself, he told me. But these days, especially after they dined at Ethel’s Fancy a couple weeks ago, his family couldn’t be more proud.
Cheers to Nishiyama for following his passion, especially if I am able to toast that sentiment with a Fancy G&T ($18). It’s a classic refresher with plenty of lime, juniper berries, a splash of tonic, and Japanese-crafted Roku gin.
Pretty much everything on the menu can be shared, especially the “milk bread from the hearth” ($12), two rounds of soft, puffy bread that get grilled and served with pools of silky sweet corn sauce and brown butter. Tear off a piece and dunk into both to experience the sweetness of summer corn on the cob bathed in butter, only heightened.
Raw cubes of fatty, sweet hiramasa or yellowtail amberjack ($22) get tossed in a charred red pepper dressing and piled atop a thin, golden, sesame-strewn cracker with petals of radish. It all makes for a peppery, gently spicy bite.
Spoons come with the dish of duck and crystallized ginger dumplings ($20), which is a good thing, because you’ll want to slurp up every drop of the delicious savory bone broth dashi. The dumplings, with thin wrappers, harbor an explosion of savoriness that coat your entire mouth in concentrated duck juices. Pretty fronds of ice plant dot the top adding an unexpected crunchiness and salinity.
If you don’t want to splurge on the spendy 14-day aged ribeye ($90), be sure to indulge in the more wallet-friendly toasted coconut fritters ($15 for two) adorned with Wagyu beef. Think nigiri sushi, only instead of a platform of rice, there’s a crisp, slightly sweet coconut fritter instead that’s almost like a tater tot. On top is a slice of the prized beef, as buttery tasting and melty on the palate as can be, with the finish of a spritely pickled green peppercorn for a burst of brightness. It’s a bite that electrifies every taste bud.
Radish slices and mint leaves get tucked into the leaves of Little Gem heads ($14) that are compact enough to pick up with your fingers to eat after dunking into ranch dip enlivened with gochugaru with a little heat and sprinkling on crunchy, seed-filled “everything spice.”
Although we paid our tab, the kitchen was kind enough to send out a dish of corn and celery tempura ($18) on the house. The lacy, snappy, light-as-air fritter of corn kernels and celery gets slathered with creamy bay shrimp salad and shards of fresh mint. It eats like the very best chips and dip.
For our entree, we shared the Mt. Lassen trout ($55), a beautiful, medium-rare salmon-hued fillet finished with a chili crisp-like topping, peanuts, salmon roe, and dots of preserved Meyer lemon sauce.
For dessert, the soft serve flavor ($12) changes regularly, but that night it was an ode to Chinese almond cookies. The soft serve, with a delicate almond taste, was piled with stewed strawberries and meringue kisses that were sweet, crunchy, and had the warmth of black pepper.
The kinako coconut “pop tart” ($12) jolted me with a near-forgotten taste from my childhood.
The perfect flaky crust with crunchy sugar chunks hid a sweet filling of peanuts and grated coconut flavored with the Japanese roasted soybean flour that tastes of chestnuts. The pop tart reminded me so much of the fried won ton snacks my aunts used to make for Chinese New Year, with the wrappers folded around a stuffing of peanuts, coconut, sesame seeds, and brown sugar. I don’t think I’d tasted one since, but this pop tart brought those happy memories flooding back in a rush.
At the end of the meal, the check arrives inside a vintage recipe booklet, for a touch of whimsy.
Be sure to check out the restrooms, too, for their charming, Japanese anime-inspired wall tiles.
In so many ways, Ethel’s Fancy is sure to tickle your fancy.