The more things change

Masque Ristorante

3909 Park
El Dorado Hills, CA 95762

(916) 933-8555

When Masque first opened in El Dorado Hills, I had just started as the dining reviewer for this paper, and the restaurant—big, splashy, buzzy and top-notch—was one of the earliest places I visited. Certainly, it was my first four-star review. Times and our ratings scale have both changed since then (formerly a four-star scale, it’s now five), and so has Masque’s team. Opening chef Angelo Auriana departed a few years ago, and the kitchen is now helmed by Ezio Gamba. It seemed like time for a revisit to see whether the Masque had, as it were, slipped.

The dining room was less than half-full at seven o’clock on a Saturday night, and those that were there were casually dressed—with some kids and babies in tow, even, which fits in with the apparent plans to devise a slightly more accessible menu. Evidently, the thrill-seeking masses have moved on. The question was: Did Masque deserve to be semi-deserted?

The dining room and bar are still big and handsome; the wine list, still long (28 pages) and very deep in big reds (the two-page by-the-glass list is balanced and offers helpful descriptions); the menu, still full of Italian classics, though there is more of an emphasis on the rich and creamy than I remember. After a palate-awakening but not especially imaginative amuse-bouche of olive tapenade crostini, we started off with a very creamy dish called crespelle. (Every dish on the menu gets a single Italian word as its tag.) These crepes enclosed a ragù-like, soft filling of duck, ground in a lightly tomatoey, creamy sauce. The most unusual touch—but one I liked—was the addition of spicy-sweet mostarda di Cremona, chunks of preserved fruit. The server’s one-handed two-spoon dishing-it-up technique was perfect (service is professional), but the dish was an oddly heavy starter.

Masque retains traditional Italian first courses (pastas) in addition to starters of salads and the like, and they make most pastas in house. It tried a lamb and ricotta ravioli dish, while my husband wanted a salad that topped Kobe beef carpaccio. In the latter, the plate-lining carpaccio was lost in the jumble of panzanella (bread salad) with pickled onions, cucumber, tomato and lots of greens. It was a winning mix, and the beef added little; why not knock $5 off the price, ditch the Kobe and call it salad?

The ravioli, dressed with a confetti of spring vegetables and a vibrant pea sauce, were tender, and lighter in flavor than I had expected—I would have thought the lamb would be full-flavored, but it had a delicate fine-ground consistency and a sweetness from the risotto. The portion was surprisingly big for a first course.

Moving on to entrees, I was honestly a little shocked to see Chilean sea bass on the menu. Most higher-end places have stopped serving it now that it has a seemingly permanent place on the seafood watch lists. So I asked the server where it came from, and she went to ask the chef. When she returned, she relayed the chef’s assertion that it was caught off the coast of Alaska, as the sea bass headed north for their migration, from a certified sustainable fishery. The restaurant’s seafood supplier, apparently, apportions the catch to his clients.

Due diligence done, I ordered it, because the Chilean sea bass, as a species, has the profound misfortune of being very delicious. This apparently sustainable little specimen was no exception, though I thought the kitchen could have gotten a deeper, more flavorful sear on the exterior. Plump rock shrimp accompanying it were supererogatory but fine, and the fregola (Sardinian couscous) was nicely toothsome. Little cherry tomatoes offered a jolt of acid offsetting the buttery sauce.

My husband’s grilled quail, while a tiny bit undercooked, had another creamy sauce with a Parmesan flavor that was a rich contrast to the minerality of some simple chard. Delicate little cannelloni, with tender pasta wound around a modest dollop of ricotta, rounded out the dish—one that went beautifully with a glass of pinot noir.

The dessert menu seemed to lack a strong identity. A quartet of miniature chocolate desserts replicated some of the items on the menu and would have been thoroughly pleasing if it had been prepared with a touch more care: A mini “molten” chocolate cake was cold throughout and fudgy, and the crunch of the chocolate crème brûlée’s crust had melted away, indicating that both had been plated well ahead. Both tasted fine—such is chocolate—but their textures were compromised. The other two items were a crumbly chocolate shortbread topped with caramelized bananas and a dense little slab of gianduja (chocolate hazelnut) cake. My foursome of tiny sorbet scoops—lychee, “spicy” mango (I detected no spice), sweet strawberry-orange, and intense pineapple—were better, though the lychee was icy.

After dessert comes the bill, undeniably on the high side. The prices are special-occasion level (maybe not for the El Dorado Hillsians, but they are for me), and Masque seems like a destination restaurant. But is it worth the drive and the price now that its opening status as the hot new thing has cooled? The lack of the annoying scene is a plus—but food and concept have slipped just a notch. It’s good, sure, but if you’re prepared to spend $150 and drive a half-hour for dinner, it’s not the only game in town.