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At Ethel’s Fancy, a Former Fine Dining Chef Puts Playful Twists on Japanese American Cuisine

The menu at former Chez TJ chef Scott Nishiyama’s new Palo Alto restaurant gets deeply personal

Toasted coconut fritters with wagyu beef and pickled green peppercorn vinaigrette, pork ribs glazed in housemade Japanese curry sauce, and hiramasa tartare with charred Jimmy Nardello dressing.
Lance Yamamoto

After cooking at some of the most lauded restaurants in the country, including three-Michelin-starred Daniel and the French Laundry, chef Scott Nishiyama says he’s ready to have some fun. And though it’s been about four years in the making, with the September 3 opening of his debut restaurant Ethel’s Fancy in Palo Alto, he’s finally doing exactly that.

In some ways, the much-anticipated restaurant — named by Bon Appetit as one of the most exciting new restaurants in the country — falls into the crowded category of serving high-end, seasonal, and ingredient-driven cuisine. But looking deeper into the details, it’s clear that Nishiyama put many aspects of his personal experiences into the project, pulling childhood snacks onto the plate and taking inspiration from his favorite food memories. “First and foremost I wanted it to be a very personal restaurant,” Nishiyama says. “I feel like that’s what people gravitate toward.”

Scott Nishiyama of Ethel’s Fancy

It starts with the name: Ethel is an homage to both 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 encasing the main dining room and the chromatic wallpaper in one of the bathrooms, reminiscent of the Great Wave off Kanagawa woodblock print. In the other bathroom, custom-made manga wallpaper depicts Nishiyama and his mother cooking together.

For the menu, Nishiyama wanted to focus on shareable plates, food he says you can pass around and eat with your hands. “I feel like that kind of dining is more inclusive,” he says. “That’s what we want to do: have fun.” Eventually, he’d like to add a chef’s tasting option, but for now, it’s a la carte only and diners should expect dishes to come and go frequently as the seasons change and ingredients 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 hosted pop-ups out of their home, first cooking for friends and family before things “snowballed” into bigger affairs, he says. The events offered a chance for the chef to refine dishes that would eventually make it on the restaurant menu, including this hiramasa tartare. The base of the dish is senbei, a Japanese cracker made using Nishiyama’s mother’s recipe. (He used to devour them as a snack when he was a kid, the chef says.) Now, the sweet-soy glazed crackers, scattered with black and white sesame seeds, support chopped yellowtail swaddled in a dressing made from charred Jimmy Nardello peppers. Nishiyama says he’ll swap out components like the peppers, pomegranate seeds, and microgreens seasonally.

Toasted coconut fritters with wagyu beef and pickled green peppercorn vinaigrette

Already popular with diners, these beef-topped coconut fritters started as a vegetarian dish, the chef says, topped originally with curry and, later, layered with fish. “But for the opening, we needed something to wow people with,” he says. So they opted for premium wagyu beef. The dishes exemplify Ethel’s Fancy’s French-Japanese influences: it’s both a riff on steak au poivre and a visual reference to a piece of nigiri. The deep-fried fritter combines tapioca and coconut milk with toasted coconut before getting tucked under a blanket of seared wagyu and a piquant pickled green peppercorn vinaigrette.

Pork ribs glazed in house-made Japanese curry sauce

For this dish, one of the heavier plates on the menu, Nishiyama says he wanted to give diners something refreshing to counterbalance the portions of local Rancho Llano Seco pork. So alongside a heaping pile of steamed, then dredged, then deep-fried pork ribs, the chef offers a medley of local vegetables. Right now, as the tail end of summer cools to fall, the crudité mix includes squash, snap peas, and carrots, each retaining their natural crunch. The ribs, adorned with a dusting of white sesame seeds, get glazed in Nishiyama’s version of Japanese curry. He wanted to craft a lighter version of the traditionally thick and sweet sauce, achieved by infusing carrot, apple, and onion juices into the roux along with all the juices that render off 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,” Nishiyama says. “Not because it’s convenient, but because I just love soft serve.” Specifically, the chef says he knew he wanted to recreate the almond cookie ice cream he used to eat while he was living and working in New York, when he’d hit Chinatown for dinner and swing by Chinatown Ice Cream Factory for dessert. At Ethel’s Fancy he’s recreating the flavor of that ice cream, infused with pieces of crumbly Chinese almond cookies. The strawberry and black pepper components felt like a natural pairing of flavors, he says, with cracked sheets of meringue adding a striking visual appeal.

Nishiyama describes the Ethel’s Fancy menu as “izakaya-style” — in that he hopes diners will order a number of smaller plates to share — with a focus on California ingredients. The cooking techniques and inspiration, he says, come from French, Italian, and Asian cuisines, a blend that reflects his culinary experience and identity. Nishiyama, who cooked at Chez TJ for years before striking out on his own, says he spent about two years looking for the perfect space to open his restaurant, roving 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
Wallpaper inside bathroom of Ethel’s Fancy.
Wallpaper inside bathroom of 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 starting at 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Reservations are available online.

Ethel's Fancy

550 Waverley Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301 Visit Website
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