Big night

The first thing that strikes you as you arrive at Masque, chef Angelo Auriana’s ambitious and hotly anticipated new restaurant in El Dorado Hills, is how big everything is. The building, the striking flower arrangements, the sinuous metal chandeliers, the amplification of the outdoor-lounge singing, the female guests’ hair and jewelry—all are outsized, and so is the drive to get there. I was immediately wary; it’s rare to find truly outstanding meals at restaurants that overwhelm the senses rather than seduce them, and Masque’s ostentation had my fight-or-flight reflexes on high alert. As we entered, I was feeling small, under-moussed, and ever so slightly cranky.

But then things changed. The music shifted to an entirely credible cover of “Moondance.” Our table was in the quietest corner of the noisy dining room. The chairs were luxuriously cushy. The linens were crisp and white. The wine list was long and intriguing, with categories arranged by type (light, complex and elegant, for instance) rather than by varietal or region. The service was professional but unpretentious. The menu was utterly tantalizing. I was on my way to being seduced.

The menu, in fact, had so many enticements that it was nearly impossible to choose. I want to go back for the veal cheeks with fregola, a nubbly Sardinian pasta; for pan-roasted chicken with artichokes; for risotto with radicchio di Treviso and mascarpone; and for every last pasta dish, from tortelli amatriciana with asparagus to spaghetti alla chitarra with clams and saffron broth. When I asked if the pastas were all house-made, our server looked slightly stricken and said, “Oh, absolutely!” Her assurance sold me on a pasta course, all of which are priced as first rather than main courses, hovering around $14.

Nevertheless, my dish of cavatelli with crayfish tails, yellow peppers and watercress was enormous. It also was much richer than the menu description indicated, with a creamy, almost bisque-like sauce. I wasn’t complaining, though; the dish was completely delicious. The pasta, shaped like little ridged cigars, was chewy and resilient, perfectly crafted and perfectly cooked, and the crayfish were sweet and fresh.

My husband’s white asparagus salad was equally good, putting the kitchen’s knife skills on display in the unusual lengthwise slices of juicy, thick spears and the unbelievably tiny dice of purple potatoes. Every bite of the salad revealed subtle new layers: the toasty flavor of pistachios; crumbly-salty cheese; the tanginess of the tiny potato cubes’ dressing; and, above all, the delicate asparagus.

When the main courses arrived, I realized that I hadn’t chosen an especially coherent dinner, but I couldn’t resist the idea of prawns wrapped in ultra-thin slices of swordfish and grilled. It’s been a while since I tasted prawns so completely different from the sad, flabby specimens now in freezer cases everywhere. The swordfish edged on chalkiness, but such is the nature of the beast. The dish, on an oblong plate (Masque’s china is gorgeously covetable), had everything: the bitter edge of wilted greens, an acid squeeze of lemon, the prawns’ sweetness and flakes of crunchy salt. At $23, however, it was much smaller than my pasta. One of Masque’s few minor missteps is that portion sizes are unpredictable, making some dishes seem expensive and others seem like bargains.

One definite bargain is the piatto unico—the daily special, which combines two of Auriana’s signature dishes, usually a meat and a pasta, for $25. When we were there, it was tender quail redolent of thyme, paired with macaroni in a slightly spicy, meaty ragu. I kept reaching across to snag bites of the latter, which had the same toothsome texture as my cavatelli. You might see pasta with meat and tomato sauce anywhere, unlike the higher-concept dishes that dominate Masque’s menu, but the execution was as flawless as it was for the fancier food. Despite the elegant flourishes, Auriana’s cooking is essentially simple, excellent Italian food, with honest flavors derived from top-notch ingredients.

Although we had eaten plenty, pastry chef Casey Hayden’s dessert menu was irresistible, especially the cioccolato, whose two slices were architecturally arranged so that one slice pointed into the air. Much to my horror, my husband bent down and bit the point off the top slice, immediately pronouncing it “obscenely good.” Though his research method was unorthodox, his conclusions were impeccable. A thick layer of firm chocolate topped a soft, raspberry-scented mousse, all on a crackly chocolate-hazelnut base, like a candy bar reinvented by the chocolate gods. My trendy little trio of lemon desserts paled in comparison; the flavor of the candied-lemon ice cream was retiring, and the shortcake a bit dry, though the little lemon-meringue tartlet was zingy and melt-in-your-mouth buttery.

Judging by the throngs of diners on a recent visit, it’s evident that Masque, open for just less than two months, already is the next big thing. Happily, the food measures up to the hype, in its high level of both concept and execution. Though Masque might seem oversized at first, a few bites will convince you that the flavors are really the biggest things there.