It's comforting to know that, in our battered economy, a diner can find refuge at Sanctuary.
Take chef Patrick Atanalian's tasting menu, for instance. It tastes like a splurge -- five lovely, well-paced courses -- but the final tab is $35, a deal in the big-bucks tasting menu world. Oh, and then the bar mimics Atanalian's creativity and frugality, charging $12 for four short matching wine pours.
It all feels very spontaneous. The changes-daily roster doesn't make it to the printed menu, it's just a brief verbal rundown. I'm shorthanding it here, but, "He's probably doing scallops, maybe pork, with a salad in there somewhere," followed by a hearty recommendation, is close to how our server described our impending meal one evening last week.
Fine by me, because judging from that dinner, I'm more than happy to place my appetite in Atanalian's capable hands: salmon tartare finished with traces of molasses and chipotle; shards of endive and apples dressed with sharp citrus-date accents; exquisitely caramelized scallops topped with cool Asian pears and smoky bacon, resting in a fragrant, spring-green pool of mint and cucumber.
A small sirloin with big, beefy flavor -- and a sprightly edamame purée -- was harmoniously paired against a velvety beef tartare. To finish, a just-perfect nibble of dense dark chocolate and a fine piece of manchego drizzled with lavender honey. Truly, it was quite the love fest: Loved the well-paired wines, the genial service, the cozy surroundings and the kitchen's finesse. And my inner cheapskate was all over the comparatively minimal assault on my credit card.
The restaurant, not far from the Guthrie Theater, is a playground for two familiar faces. Co-owner Michael Kutscheid has been a spiffy front man at more local restaurants than I can count; he's probably best known for Kapoochi, his short-lived downtown Minneapolis hot spot, which flared hot and flamed out in the mid-'90s. His is a very convivial hospitality, an increasingly rare commodity in the local restaurant scene.
Atanalian has headlined at the former New French Cafe, Loring Cafe, the Vintage and Kapoochi. He's never been shy about injecting breathlessness, whimsy and a bit of his inner mad scientist into his work (the antiquated word twee comes to mind).
But Atanalian may be mellowing. Or maybe the native Frenchman has embraced a culinary version of Coco Chanel's minimalistic decree that all well dressed women will stay that way by removing an accessory before leaving the house. At Sanctuary, Atanalian's seasonally minded cooking feels less frantic and more approachable, without losing the essence of his idiosyncratic style. The unlikely ingredient combinations are still there, but they whisper rather than shout. And in many instances they just feel right.
This newly Zen Atanalian is all there in my favorite dish, a Fred Flintstone-size lamb shank, braised overnight until the succulent, superbly flavorful meat barely clings to the bone. A sublime ancho chile mole insinuates itself into each bite, and an accompanying cake made from white beans adds just the right accent. The old Atanalian wouldn't have been able to stop there, but his newfound restraint serves him well. It's a perfect dish.
Ditto the fork-tender curried pork medallions, served with a pristine coconut broth and presented, like so many dishes, with an artist's eye toward composition and color. Another beauty was the sweet, juicy scallops, teasingly brown from the heat of the pan and not the slightest bit overpowered by a brush of balsamic. Each one is crowned by a spoonful of a delicately smoky ratatouille and, like much of the food at Sanctuary, it's a dish that's light in tone but heavy in flavor.
That same strategy flows through a gorgeous raw beet salad, the gold and red root vegetables sliced into paper-thin ribbons and finished with zesty microgreens; suddenly all those roasted beet salads that populate menus from Bayport to Belle Plaine seem clumsy and heavy-handed. Atanalian elegantly layered sun-dried tomatoes and woody mushrooms between crisp taro root chips to sculpt a savory Napoleon. A deeply flavorful parsnip soup was an ideal root-cellar inspiration for a wet winter's night, and I loved the dainty little risotto croquettes flecked with bits of duck.
There are a few missteps. Vegetarians' sole main-course choice is a plate of puffy yam beignets; come on, there's nothing else to offer beyond fried dough? A clunky blue cheese vinaigrette tanked a scallops appetizer. A busy salmon dish was a glimpse into the undisciplined Atanalian of old, and desserts aren't on the same level as their savory counterparts.
The somewhat limited menu curiously does little to cater to time-pressed pre- and post-Guthrie grazers, although that will probably change when warmer weather lures ticketholders into making the two-block walk. Oh, and I can't be the only one who rolls his eyes when he sees the menu's cloying "Entice-refresh-nourish-indulge" format, which stands in for appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts.
The restaurant occupies the ground floor of a former 19th-century stable and machine shop. Along with a brawny blend of timbers, stone and brick -- offset by soft velvet drapes and warm lighting -- there's plenty of environmentally friendly salvage incorporated into the mix, including 70-year-old white oak planks that line the floor and distinctive Gothic-inspired furniture recycled from a church. Gnarly gargoyles, another medieval touch, stand guard from various vantage points in the long, skinny dining space, and double glass doors open onto what promises to be a swell patio with picturesque skyline views.
The whole package comes off as expensive, but like so much at Sanctuary, there's more to first impressions. Not many downtown restaurants offer such imaginative cooking at such middle-of-the-road prices. To Kutscheid and Atanalian, I have just two words: Welcome back.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757