René Redzepi’s recent announcement that he’s closing Noma—known amongst foodies as “the best restaurant in the world”—may or may not be a bellwether marking the end of fine dining everywhere. But the dream that it really is sustainable still persists in the Bay Area. Chef Scott Nishiyama’s new Palo Alto restaurant suggests a possible way forward. Or, at the very least, a middle ground.
Nishiyama’s menu doesn’t offer multicourse meals for a prix fixe hovering over $300. It’s not designed as a culinary adventure for gluttons or a stage for show-offs eager to compare the size of their big fat paychecks.
Ethel’s Fancy encourages diners to order shared plates, or to sit at the cheerful, low-lit terrazzo bar for an afterwork cocktail and snacks. In that regard, Nishiyama considers his restaurant to be approachable. While the entrée prices seem to contradict that thought—or at least limit who exactly can approach the cost of an entire meal plus wine—the overall pricing represents the realities of running a restaurant within the new rules of our post-pandemic era. Rent, fair staff wages and benefits, and the use of quality ingredients are all part of the 2023 equitable restaurant equation.
“We’re trying to educate diners. We want people to be able to share everything,” Nishiyama explains.
Part of that education is an exploration of Asian ingredients, some of which may not be familiar to many diners. Ethel’s Fancy incorporates many Japanese elements, such as togarashi, yuzu and sudachi. “While the food is elevated, this is more family style,” he adds.
StarChefs.com named Scott Nishiyama a “Rising Star” in 2010. At the time, he was gaining acclaim while cooking at Chez TJ’s in Mountain View. Reflecting on that early part of his career, the chef recalls that his dream was always to open his own restaurant. But at the same time, after having spent 12 years in the restaurant industry, the newly married Nishiyama was ready for a break. He left Chez TJ’s and worked as a private chef for several years. “I didn’t have the same hectic schedule but I missed the camaraderie, the interaction with guests,” he says.
The chef’s yearning to nurture people was still very strong. “After long conversations with my wife, we decided to open this restaurant,” he says.
From the initial conception of Ethel’s Fancy, the Nishiyamas didn’t want to open a “so-called fine dining establishment.” He admits that the experience isn’t “super casual” but they wanted diners to have fun and have great food. There’s also a part of the bar designated as a chef’s counter, where people can watch the chefs cook and hear their clatter. “I wanted the space to be an energetic environment,” Nishiyama said.
If you happen to be on a budget, I’d recommend taking friends with you to Ethel’s Fancy so the food can be split as an affordable group meal. Music plays at a noticeable, often intrusive level. At times, it makes conversation effortful. This decibel-heavy approach works better for a group or for coworkers who don’t know each other very well.
Following the suggested approach of shared dishes, we start with Milk Bread From the Hearth ($12) under the “Morsels” heading. Instead of my preconceived picture of dinner rolls, the milk bread looks like two English muffins with grill marks crisscrossing the exterior. We cut them into fours and dip them into an accompanying sweet potato and brown butter dip. We order the rest of our meal from the list of “Shareables.”
The Gem Lettuces Wedge Salad ($19) is the second rather gimmicky salad I’ve tried recently. Instead of dressing the stalks with the honeynut squash “ranch,” you’re meant to pick the lettuce or radish slice up and dip it in a bowl, like crudités. This is a better concept than the other restaurant’s approach, which involved pieces of lettuce on a skewer. However, I’m still not convinced that salad should be served in any way other than in a bowl.
Nice and Chewy Black Sesame Noodles ($26) cover the plate like small sticks of black licorice. They swim in a tomato yuzu sauce featuring Dungeness crab. The chef described Koshihikari Rice ($25), with Hokkaido scallops and tiny beech mushrooms, as a humble, familiar dish that evolved. The small grains of rice turn bright green with the addition of a schmaltz pesto. At the first stage of developing the dish, Nishiyama played with fresh herbs to add a floral texture to the sauce. It didn’t turn out right until he added chicken fat. “That’s how a lot of our dishes evolve,” he says. “These light bulbs go off and you’re like, ‘Wow, I’ve never made a pesto with those flavors.’”
Nishiyama also describes the way he cooks the Crispy Corona Beans ($18). Before frying them, he cooks the beans simply, covered with water. Then he adds onion, garlic, and carrots until they’re tender. The kick of spice comes from the togarashi. Marinated beets and an eggplant persimmon relish provide some sweetness to round out the dish (add prosciutto for $5).
When Nishiyama told his parents that he wanted to become a professional chef, they were very apprehensive. “They were concerned that I wasn’t going to be able to make a living doing it,” he recalls. “Back then in the 1990s, being a chef wasn’t glamorous.”
Ethel’s Fancy, the chef’s first restaurant, is named for his mother. She doesn’t live in the Bay Area but when she’s in town she tries whatever’s new on the menu. “I’m always testing dishes on her because she gives me good feedback,” the chef says.
He adds that both his mother and grandmother were great cooks—“more nurturers than anything.” They’re the ones who gave him the sense that you could nurture people through food.
Ethel’s Fancy, 550 Waverley St, Palo Alto. 650.561.4860. Open Tue-Thu 5-9pm, Fri-Sat 5-9:30pm. Reservations recommended. Ethelsfancypa.com.