Scott Nishiyama’s personality is on full display at Ethel’s Fancy, the hottest restaurant reservation in Palo Alto.
There’s no summing up with a few words what he’s doing on Waverley Street. He describes his new venture as “an exploration of modern California cuisine from a Japanese-American kid from Hawaii who just happened to work in some of the best restaurants in America.”
And he’s named it in honor of his maternal grandmother and mother.
By design, Ethel’s Fancy is less formal than the upscale places on Nishiyama’s résumé. He helmed the Michelin-starred Chez TJ in Mountain View and also cooked at the French Laundry and Daniel before becoming a personal chef for a decade. He and GM Jon Sloane (Quince, Chez TJ) have created a menu of shareable plates, using seasonal ingredients from farmers markets and local purveyors.
Pretty intriguing, right? We snagged a reservation. Here’s our report:
THE VIBE: Buzzy and exciting.
THE LOOK: Nishiyama may have been inspired by his grandmother’s cooking, but this restaurant ain’t your grandma’s Prolific Oven, the previous longtime occupant. He’s exposed the beams, making for a much more spacious look, designed an open kitchen and renovated for a modern, minimalist look. Seating at the kitchen counter offers an up-close look at the hive of activity, with eight or more chefs working with Nishiyama. There’s bar seating too.
Amid the modernism is a playful, nostalgic touch: Your check will arrive tucked in a vintage cookbook.
THE FOOD: Nishiyama’s innovative Michelin chops are on full display.
The entree of Rancho Llano Seco Pork Ribs ($48) is artfully cooked and composed: An architectural array of four meaty ribs lightly glazed in Japanese curry sits atop a bed of crispy Corona beans and “shaved seasonal crudites.” North Pacific Black Cod ($50) is served with a zesty caramelized yuzu kosho, rapini and kale furikake. Among the to-share plates, Brussels sprouts and burrata encircle the miso caramel-topped Crispy Pork Belly ($19). A comforting, Ethel-would-approve Milk Bread from the Hearth ($12) comes with a sweet potato and brown butter dip.
In early autumn, when we were there, we had to admit we love a chef who, like us, can’t let go of tomatoes and stone fruit. Nishiyama presented a salad titled “End of Season But Still Damn Good Tomatoes and Pluots” ($16). And they were. Now, of course, the fruits of summer have given way to pears, persimmons and mushrooms for his creations.
On the “Sweets” menu, Nishiyama evokes nostalgia with the Almond Cookie Soft Serve ($12), a riff on his childhood favorite, to which he adds sophisticated touches of roasted grape with ume plum and pieces of black pepper meringue. The Kinako Coconut “Pop Tart” ($12) sits atop a pool of cajeta, with a side dollop of whipped creme fraiche.
THE SIPS: Japanese and global spirits star on the cocktail list. A signature drink named Oh You Think You Fancy? ($16) combines Iwai 45 whisky, chartreuse and matcha. Ethel’s Fancy Martini features Haku vodka while the Fancy G&T is made with Roku gin. The Spumoni cocktail ($14) pays homage to Italy with the Contratto aperitif, grapefruit and pink peppercorn. And Ode to Joy ($15) is hibiscus-infused mezcal, lime and sparkling wine. For a non-alcoholic refresher, try the pleasingly tart Shiso Lemonade ($8).
DON’T MISS: Diners are pretty much in agreement on this one. Don’t pass up the Toasted Coconut Fritters (two for $16), each oblong draped with a slice of seared Wagyu beef, nigiri style, and topped with pickled green peppercorn sauce. You can make it a one-bite or two-bite morsel; eat with a knife and fork; or do as we did and eat one to get the layered impact, then deconstruct the other to savor the Wagyu strip by itself.
GOOD TO KNOW: If you want a less-buzzy dinner, reserve a space in the back room or the front patio. But the shared experience is part of the appeal.
DETAILS: Open from 5 to 9 p.m. p.m. Tuesday-Saturday (until 9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday) at 550 Waverley St. in Palo Alto; www.ethelsfancypa.com.