The talk of the town
Mason’s1116 15th St.
Sacramento, CA 95814
If you have not heard by now about the window between the gents’ and ladies’ facilities at The Park Downtown complex, I hope you are enjoying the comfortable solitude of the rock under which you are living. For those who haven’t seen the space, the hand-washing part of each bathroom looks in on the other; the spaces mirror each other so perfectly as to produce an optical illusion that might, at first, make you think you can’t see your own reflection, like a vampire.
It’s all meant to create buzz, and it has, but when I visited Mason’s, the complex’s upscale restaurant, I found the spectacle of seeing members of the opposite sex washing their hands (or, worse, not) less titillating than the intra-sex gossip among the women’s stalls. Even juicier was eavesdropping on the next table, where one member of the party was delicately negotiating the question of whether her escort would mind if she dated other people. Mason’s already seems to have taken a premier place among the city’s see-and-be-seen hot-date restaurants, and relationships in progress are as much on display as the acres of cleavage, which is saying something. The setting, modern and gorgeous and loud, shows it all off to advantage.
It makes for great entertainment, and, in case you were wondering, there is also food. Very good food, in fact—good enough to deserve not being overshadowed by all the buzz. The menu starts off strong in the appetizers and continues to a number of intriguing main courses, from Dungeness crab-stuffed trout to grilled pork with spaetzle and black-pepper caramelized apples.
We hesitated over appetizers, though I was immediately drawn to the luscious-sounding duck-confit salad. On the other hand, there was fried Japanese pumpkin topped with salad and Gorgonzola “fondue.” The tables on either side of us ordered it and oohed and aahed over it. I was, however, very happy with the melting-crisp cracklings of duck and the succulent confit shards in my salad, which contrasted nicely with the peppery wild arugula and cinnamon-scented persimmon slices. At first it looked like there was just a sprinkling of duck on top, but on closer examination it turned out there was duck all the way down.
My husband, meanwhile, had a fricassee of tender, sweet lobster with chanterelles, slices of starchy chestnut and some rather gummy gnocchi. The dish was a tour de force of texture (the gnocchi aside) with a deep flavor from demiglace. We switched plates halfway through the appetizers, but he asked for his back and swiped up every drop of liquid with his bread.
One criticism I’d heard from others who had been to Mason’s was that the service exuded hipper-than-thou snootiness, so I was alert to any signs of condescension. I found nothing of the sort from the staff we dealt with, but rather warm friendliness. Indeed, one of our servers was more than willing to go the extra mile when I asked about a wine pairing for my entrée: difficult-to-match, lemony chickpea pancakes with a pile of flavorful vegetables. He suggested a chardonnay, and when I asked about whether it was very oaky, he not only checked his choice with the manager, but also, he said, tasted their two chardonnays by the glass to determine which would be less oaky and more to my taste.
It was a very nice glass, and it went beautifully with the vegetarian main dish. Indeed, I suggest that you go with the wines they sell in-house (many of them quite reasonably priced), given that the menu lists a punishingly graduated corkage fee.
My chickpea pancakes were just a touch salty, but I loved the sautéed artichokes in the fresh vegetables alongside them. The lemon flavors and crisp-fried edges of the little pancakes were also delightful. The runaway hit, however, was my husband’s entrée—the pork, naturally. I am so pleased that spaetzle has been making a comeback. It’s delicious, and it was particularly nice with the thick, juicy pork, as were the peppered chunks of sweet apple.
We didn’t have room for dessert, really, but we got some anyway. My husband’s fall fruit cobbler received bonus points for including a much wider variety of autumn fruits than the usual apples and pears—I also spotted cranberries and Fuyu persimmons—but the fruit was not quite tender, and it also had a slight excess of cloves. The crumbly topping was nice, but the whole dessert was unfinishably ginormous. I had a rich but yummy butterscotch pudding, layered in a martini glass with mascarpone cheese and topped with tiny, nicely salty shards of toffee.
I ended by begging the server to take it away, lest I keep eating until I regretted it, but not before I heard the guy at the next table asking, “Is that butterscotch pudding?” He ordered it without looking at the other menu options. Mason’s brand of upscale and innovative American food—much of it revamped comfort food—is instantly attractive that way. The menu’s appeal is as finely calibrated as the design of its infamous bathroom; unlike the bathroom, however, the food is not mere gimmickry, but solidly meritorious. This new spot, far from being all talk, is truly buzz-worthy.