At Ethel’s Fancy in Palo Alto, a former gourmet chef puts playful twists on Japanese-American cuisine

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After cooking at some of the country’s most acclaimed restaurants, including the three-Michelin-star Daniel and the French Laundry, Chef Scott Nishiyama says he’s ready to have some fun. And though it’s taken about four years, he’s finally doing just that with the opening of his first restaurant, Ethel’s Fancy, on September 3 in Palo Alto.

In a way, the highly-anticipated restaurant – named after Good Appetite as one of most exciting new restaurants in the Country – falls into the crowded category of serving quality, seasonal and ingredient-driven cuisine. But when you dig deeper into the details, it’s clear that Nishiyama brought many aspects of his personal experience to the project, serving up childhood snacks and taking inspiration from his favorite foods. “First and foremost, I wanted it to be a very personal restaurant,” says Nishiyama. “I feel like people are drawn to it.”

Scott Nishiyama of Ethel’s Fancy

It starts with the name: Ethel is a tribute to Nishiyama’s mother and maternal grandmother. As a first-generation Japanese-American, Nishiyama wanted the space to have subtle Japanese influences, including the blue-and-white fabric that drapes the main dining room and the chromatic wallpaper in one of the bathrooms reminiscent of that Great Wave off Kanagawa woodcut. In the other bathroom, a custom-made manga wallpaper shows Nishiyama and his mother cooking together.

For the menu, Nishiyama wanted to focus on sharing plates, foods that he believes can be passed around and eaten with your hands. “I feel like this way of eating is more inclusive,” he says. “That’s what we want to do: have fun.” Eventually he’d love to add a chef’s tasting option, but for now it’s only a la carte and guests should expect dishes to come and go frequently as the seasons and ingredients change cycle off the menu.

Here are the stories behind four standout dishes at Ethel’s Fancy:

Hiramasa tartare with charred Jimmy Nardello dressing

Ethel’s Fancy has been in the works since 2018, and in the years between then and now, Nishiyama and his wife have hosted pop-ups from their home, first cooking for friends and family before things “blurred” onto larger matters, he says he. The events provided the chef with an opportunity to refine dishes that would eventually make it onto the restaurant’s menu, including this Hiramasa Tartare. The base of the dish is senbei, a Japanese cracker made according to Nishiyama’s mother’s recipe. (He used to gobble them up as a kid as a snack, the chef says.) Now, the sweet soy glazed crackers sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds back chopped yellowtail wrapped in a dressing of charred Jimmy Nardello peppers. Nishiyama says he will seasonally swap out components like peppers, pomegranate seeds, and microgreens.

Roasted coconut fritters with Wagyu beef and pickled green pepper vinaigrette

Already a hit with diners, this coconut beef fritter was originally a vegetarian dish, says the chef, initially topped with curry and later topped with fish. “But for the opening we needed something that we could inspire people with,” he says. So they settled on premium Wagyu beef. The dishes exemplify Ethel’s Fancy’s Franco-Japanese influences: it’s both a nod to a steak au poivre and a visual reference to a slice of nigiri. The fried fritter combines tapioca and coconut milk with toasted coconut before being tucked under a topping of seared Wagyu and a zesty pickled green peppercorn vinaigrette.

Pork ribs glazed in homemade Japanese curry sauce

For this dish, one of the heavier dishes on the menu, Nishiyama wanted to offer diners something refreshing to balance out the portions of local Rancho Llano Seco pork. Alongside a pile of steamed, then dredged, and then fried pork ribs, the chef offers a medley of local vegetables. Just now, as the end of summer cools into fall, the crudité blend includes pumpkin, mangetout and carrot, each retaining their natural crunch. Ribs dusted with white sesame are glazed in Nishiyama’s version of Japanese curry. He wanted to make a lighter version of the traditionally thick and sweet sauce, achieved by infusing the carrot, apple, and onion juices into the roux along with any juices that ooze from the ribs.

Almond Cookie Soft Serve with Strawberry, Shiso, and Black Pepper Meringue

“I knew when I opened a restaurant I had to have soft serve,” says Nishiyama. “Not because it’s convenient, but because I just love soft serve.” More specifically, the chef says he knew he wanted to recreate the almond cookie ice cream he’d eaten while living and working in New York when he came to Chinatown for dinner and stopped by Chinatown Ice Cream Factory for dessert. At Ethel’s Fancy, he recreates the taste of this ice cream infused with chunks of crumbly Chinese almond biscuits. The strawberry and black pepper components felt like a natural flavor pairing, he says, with cracked meringue adding a striking visual appeal.

Nishiyama describes the Ethel’s Fancy menu as “Izakaya style” — in that he hopes diners will order a series of smaller dishes to share — with an emphasis on California ingredients. The cooking techniques and inspiration, he says, come from French, Italian and Asian cuisines, a mix that reflects his culinary experience and identity. Nishiyama, who cooked at Chez TJ for years before starting his own business, says he spent about two years looking for the perfect spot to open his restaurant, traveling all the way from Burlingame to Mountain View. “I knew I wanted to be on the Peninsula,” he says. “We’re just trying to create a place for the community to enjoy.”

Interior of Ethel's Fancy.

Interior of Ethel's Fancy.

Interior of Ethel's Fancy.

Left to right: Jason Johnson, Daniel Ly, Scott Nishiyama, Mellowing Salvador and Jon Sloane of Ethel’s Fancy

Bathroom wallpaper from Ethel's Fancy.

Bathroom wallpaper from Ethel's Fancy.

Interior of Ethel's Fancy.

Ode to Joy (hibiscus-infused tequila, lime juice, and Lambrusco) and Spumoni (aperitif, grapefruit juice, pink peppercorns, gin, and tonic water).

Ethel’s Fancy (550 Waverley Street in Palo Alto) serves dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 5:00 p.m. Reservations are possible on-line.

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