Opening a major restaurant in this economy is a daunting task, with the real risk of a free fall to failure.
Sienna, which took over the 9,500-square-foot building once occupied by the tragic love story known as Masque Ristorante, is doing plenty of things right to gain a foothold in upscale El Dorado Hills.
The food is a lead-off hit right up the middle, from duck confit pot stickers, wild mushroom bruschetta and pizza from the wood-burning oven to a brined pork chop with an apple cider reduction, and "loose ravioli" with short ribs that tastes much better than it sounds.
The setting is world-class, even if I disrupted the ambience by showing up in a blazer, not a Hawaiian shirt.
Sienna's most noteworthy component is where it is already hitting home runs: appealing events and excellent ideas to inspire folks to give this place a try. It's working.
Live music on the large, fashionable patio out front.
Regular events at the bar featuring guest mixologists teaching folks to make new and exciting drinks.
Sunday brunch with all-you-can-eat eggs Benedict, smoked salmon, waffles and omelets, along with all-you-can-drink mimosas for $19.95.
A "fitness special" entrée that changes weekly and is never more than 450 calories (for Weight Watchers adherents, about 9 points) to offset the 4,500 calories you had at brunch.
Large-scale wine dinners, and a wine selection that includes 20 offerings by the glass, a beer brewed in-house called Sienna Ale, and a nice list of specialty drinks from the full bar, including a pomegranate Cosmo and a Sweet Serrano Chilitini.
Demonstration cooking events run by the executive chef, in which he teaches aspiring foodies how to prepare dishes from the Sienna menu. They're just $35 and you eat what you've learned to cook.
A private chef's table with a behind-the-scenes view of the massive kitchen. Booking this table for six to 10 people gets you a special dinner, interaction with the chef and a VIP atmosphere not available anywhere else in Sacramento. It's $55 for five courses, $85 if you get the wine pairings.
But let's be clear: Sienna isn't trying to wow you with cutting-edge cooking. Despite the grand setting and a million-dollar kitchen the size of a Serrano starter mansion, nothing about Sienna suggests it is trying to make you think you're in Yountville.
Reliable, unpretentious, family-friendly and fun. It's all good, but is it worth making a special trip into the land of hillside homes and faux-Italian-style shopping centers?
It seems likely Sienna will succeed as an appealing spot for the folks in El Dorado Hills, who recently lost the Wine Konnection, which fell on hard times and closed.
While the Sienna menu may not be dynamic enough to entice foodies to make the drive from downtown Sacramento, the aforementioned events do warrant a special trip, and those mimosas may make you consider getting a room until you recover.
Sienna is the work of the husband-and-wife team of Mark and Karoline Platt, who really know what they're doing. If you're not trying to be the next Masque (which had a meteoric rise, a monumental implosion and an unceremonious death march), you have to hammer away at value while offering a sophisticated experience.
Only two items on the menu the porcini-dusted filet mignon and the spice-crusted ahi tuna cost more than $20.
The kitchen is run by executive chef Jon Nelson, who has created a menu with plenty of appealing touches. Classically trained in the European fashion, he shows his fondness for California-Asian fusion. With that come variations on sweet, sour, hot and salty in several of his dishes.
The large pork chop, described on the menu as "vanilla brined pork T-bone," had its moments. Brining is a technique that magically transforms mild-tasting cuts of meat into juicy, flavorful ones in less than an hour. This is done by submerging the meat in a solution, typically, of four parts water and one part salt. With the pork, Nelson adds vanilla extract, brown sugar, allspice and cinnamon.
The result was indeed tender and flavorful. If there was a downside, it was the cumulative effect of the allspice and cinnamon. They tend to take over and linger on the palate until it gets to be too much.
One night at Sienna, our table ordered the margherita pizza as an appetizer; it was a pleasant surprise, with a crust flavored with thyme and oregano, quality toppings and a surprising, spicy little kick.
Spotting something on the menu called "short rib open ravioli" gets one's attention. Our excellent server's explanation included raves about the flavor, and she was right. These boneless short ribs are seared, then braised in beer until the color is deep and dark, the flavor intense. The meat starts dissolving when it hits your tongue.
The dish appears just as you might imagine: Instead of neat, tidy ravioli, it's a big, wonderful mess of meat and pasta. For $15.95, this is too good to pass up.
Filet mignon is a reliable indulgence for those who like very tender steak in a thick cut. You'll get that at Sienna. At $26.95, it's by far the most expensive item on the menu, and includes sautéed spinach along with a playful and delicious lobster-potato spring roll. Our steak was cooked beyond the requested medium-rare, however.
The Thai chili mahi-mahi, on the other hand, was perfectly prepared and smartly plated. The macadamia crust melded nicely with the spicy, fruity pineapple salsa and the cilantro rice.
Our service was mixed, as might be expected at a new spot. On our second visit, the woman who handled our table was a real pro. On our first visit, our personable waiter was not at that level, amenable as he was. When we asked about the wild mushroom bruschetta with goat cheese on grilled sourdough, his reply was eyebrow-raising: "I really liked it and I don't even like mushrooms." Too much information. If you say you don't like mushrooms but you like this, you're really saying you don't know what you're talking about. Luckily, the bruschetta was good and we love mushrooms.
Desserts, too, were pleasing. The dark chocolate s'mores with housemade marshmallows were a refined version of the camp treat. The mascarpone cheesecake was frozen, intentionally, which also made it more interesting. It worked well with the balsamic glaze and the basil-scented strawberries.
What may be missing is a certain wow factor on the menu. Are there enough good eats available over multiple visits to keep the rather demanding and discerning El Dorado Hills clientele happy for the long haul?
That's something to be sorted out in coming months. With a capable chef and a 3,500 square-foot kitchen, the potential is there to take the food to the next level.
For now, Sienna is thriving and deservedly so.
Farewell to a colleague
I have to report sad news related to the "Dining Scouts" feature we launched last Sunday. Mike Biggs, one of the four scouts and a regular e-mail correspondent of mine for the past 18 months, died suddenly last Saturday. He was a world traveler and an enthusiastic restaurant-goer who moved with his wife to Placerville from the Bay Area upon retirement from Scudder, Stevens & Clark, where he was a longtime investment counselor.
His many e-mail reports about his latest restaurant visits were enlightening and entertaining, with charm and wisdom and kindness. I looked forward to reading everything he wrote.
We had arranged to meet for dinner on the day he died. He called me that morning to say he had a temperature and would have to cancel. I knew about his lingering heart problems and wished him a speedy recovery.
The next time I saw his e-mail pop up, I was excited to hear from him. But it was from his family, and I was stunned to read of his death. My condolences to his wife, Virginia, and their three children.
3909 Park Drive, El Dorado Hills
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Tuesday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.- midnight Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday
Full bar? Yes
Overall: 2 1/2 stars (promising)
Excellent hours, an excellent offering of events, many nice ideas, a beautiful setting and pretty good food offer plenty of promise. Will the affordable concept have long-lasting appeal, or will the food need to rise to the occasion?
Food: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
We liked the Thai-inspired mahi mahi, the pizza and the duck confit pot stickers; the pork chop was appealing if overwhelming. All but two items are under $20. The style of cooking: California meets Asia. The wine list is compact, accessible and heavily Californian. Compared with the food, wine prices are on the high side.
Service: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
Peppy, friendly, attentive. One of our servers was very good; one needed a little more honing. You'll get plenty of attention, but it will be hit-or-miss on expert food knowledge.
Ambience: 3 1/2 stars (very good)
From the moment you park your Lexus, it's apparent this is a stunning piece of real estate. The main dining room is attractive and the large bar is quite sophisticated, as is the outdoor seating. The private chef's table for up to 10 people could turn out to be a spectacular dining experience.
Value: 3 stars (good)
While most menu items cost less than $20, the wines seem out of sync. The cabernet sauvignon and red blends, for example, have only one bottle under $30 and several over $60; $140 for a Pahlmeyer blend from the Napa Valley. The list could use several more nice bargain wines to go with the modest prices on the main menu.
Noteworthy: Two events stand out for foodies the chef's table featuring a special five-course menu ($55 or $85 with wine pairings), and the lunchtime chef demonstration cooking series ($35). Check the website for details.