Loath as I am to begin with a quote, I must admit that quite often throughout the history of the recorded word, the concept I am formulating already has been expressed—more perfectly—by someone else.
It wasn’t a Greek philosopher, but rather the author of a book on gardening, who said, “Sanctuary, on a personal level, is where we perform the job of taking care of our soul.” At the moment, I have no better, more succinct description than that.
Sanctuary is an ambitious name for a restaurant to live up to, but Executive Chef Patrick Atanalian is more than up to the challenge.
Because Sanctuary attracts its share of Guthrie patrons, the dinner rush can be intense. However, despite an astonishingly small kitchen, Atanalian’s menu reveals a cool hand and a playful spirit.
Atanalian’s early-fall cuisine takes unlikely inspiration from a recent trip to Miami, tempering more robust flavors with the mildness of late summer. In addition, Monday through Thursday, a tasting menu provides an incredible value at $35, while a wine flight is $14.
When I visited the restaurant, the week’s selections included a Thai Sausage Appetizer, which balanced its saltiness with a comforting lilt of sugar; the refreshing roasted red beet salad, with creamy boursin cheese, pickled asparagus, and fried plantain chips (also listed on the regular menu for $6); a rich and peppery shrimp pappardelle, tossed in a rosemary, garlic, and red wine sauce; a surprisingly sweet smoked chicken, with succulent hen of the woods mushrooms; and a dainty pumpkin pie.
Any of them are worthy of a paragraph, but I thought it best to focus my column on the regular menu—although it, too, changes frequently.
Tuna sashimi, served with heady mustard seed oil, green onion, and grilled avocados, and punctuated with shaved dark chocolate ($8), is a masterpiece. In other, less-skilled hands, I doubt shaved dark chocolate and mustard oil would work, but the lightly scattered shavings lend the dish a touch of bitter that helps the brighter flavors gain footing.
In fact, the dish was so inspiring that this on-again/off-again cook now is on the hunt for mustard seed oil. I know I’d probably make a fine mess of it, but somehow, the flavors that come out of Atanalian’s kitchen are so interesting and odd, it almost makes one sufficiently overconfident to don an apron, and ask: Why not? So, why not grind up some skittles, and sprinkle them atop your holiday turkey? I can see it all now: “Let us give thanks, while we taste the rainbow.”
Garlic, spinach, Parmesan, and artichoke tartlets ($7) arrived next on a pretty little plate of olives provencal, cornichons, and a healthy shot of verjus at the center. My dining partner and I eyed each other, not wanting to start a war this early on in the meal. Good food is an agent of civilization, but amazing food turns both of us into hedonistic savages.
Working our way from the outside of the plate in, we somehow managed to share sips of verjus—acidic juice of unripened grapes. It was a common ingredient in Medieval cooking, where modern cooks often would use wine or vinegar, but today, verjus is used less frequently outside of, say, Syria.
I have had lamb as part of my holiday meal ever since I was a child, in every sort of way a Jewish family does, but I never had it smoked. Smoked lamb retains its gaminess—but the smoke complements its natural flavor in such a way that even the less-enthusiastic lamb eater might be tempted to try a bite.
Atanalian’s smoked lamb shank ($20) rests in a porcini mushroom reduction, with gigante beans, roasted red pepper, and sweet onion. It doesn’t take the place of my childhood rack-of-lamb fantasy, but it doesn’t need to in order to win my absolute respect and admiration. Paired with either the food-friendly Ferrari-Carano Cabernet or—better still—the fruity Marietta Reserve Zinfandel, it is extraordinary.
Desserts are lighter at Sanctuary—even the chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream and fresh berries ($8) seems weightless. However, I suggest sampling the trio of dessert shots ($10.50) for something a little different.
The featured cocktails tend to be a bit sweet, so one also could look there for an after-dinner drink. That list will change shortly, except for the ever-popular Quasi-Mojo ($9.50)—a mojito with a pleasant hint of absinthe.
Unless you have that Guthrie show to rush off to, I suggest an after-dinner something or other. Sanctuary’s handsome, slightly-gothic decor encourages a guest to linger.
Granted temporary asylum from the ordinary and the expected, I was reluctant to leave this Sanctuary.
903 Washington Ave. S., Mpls.