Sanctuary never seems as busy as it should, nor is it talked about as much as it deserves. The difficulty is in explaining what, precisely, it is about Sanctuary that sets it apart from other restaurants. The ingredients and approach seem, at first, not radically different from other upscale modern American restaurants — touches of fusion here and there, artful presentation, but not, on the surface, radically different from a good hotel restaurant.
But the truth is on the plate. Past meals have featured dishes like a beef-carpaccio appetizer — rich with the deep flavor of the meat but enhanced by the strong taste of white anchovies and crisp rings of red onion. Simple in theory, but in practice the three powerful flavors are just strong enough to tame each other and balance out into an explosively profound mouthful of flavor.
We recently visited Sanctuary to interview the restaurant’s head chef, Patrick Atanalian. The goal: obtaining some insight into the culinary mind behind a menu that features dishes such as caramelized sea scallops with parsnip paint, granny smith apple salsa, crispy pancetta and paddlefish caviar, as well as tequila barbecue beef brisket tacos with salsa verde, avocado, queso fresco, and garlic chili creme fraiche.
Chef Atanalian, who has cooked at the restaurant for about two and a half years and hails from Marseilles, France, proved to be as challenging and intriguing as the original and multifaceted dishes that fill his menu.
JAMES NORTON: You’re from Marseilles — what kind of an impact does that have on your cooking?
PATRICK ATANALIAN: When you think of Marseilles, it’s not just the fish, the sea, the sun, the beach, the people — it’s a pretty tough city to be born in and grow up in. It’s called the first door to Africa — the number one port in France.
NORTON: So you’re comfortable with cosmopolitan influences.
ATANALIAN: Yeah. It’s a little bit of everything.
NORTON: How do you approach bringing, for example, an Asian ingredient into a classically Western dish, something you often do here?
ATANALIAN: It’s not so much the Asian ingredients as the philosophy behind the ingredient. To me it’s like, you have to know the philosophy behind it. Like ginger — everybody knows ginger — but what’s the philosophy behind it? It’s very complicated. I don’t know how to describe it to you.
[Atanalian then takes a long, discursive crack at it using two empty glasses to illustrate a point about Zen Buddhism.]
ATANALIAN: Does that make sense…?
ATANALIAN: How about this… You can use a carrot, but what’s a carrot? When you’ve got a raw carrot, what does it taste like? When you cook it, what does it taste like? When you’ve got carrot, you know it goes with ginger. But what is carrot bringing to the ginger, and what does the ginger bring to the carrot? What does it do to your palate, what does it do to your tongue? You were born liking sweet food, no matter what. Why does a baby like sweet food?
NORTON: So you boil things back down to their essentials, and build up dishes from there — you go back to the basic qualities that make them what they are. How does that reflect in your food?
ATANALIAN: Yes, right. We try to do interesting stuff. Instead of just doing a bread pudding… we can pimp it up, you know? Pimp my bread pudding! Do I push the envelope? Yes. Does Sea Change push the envelope? Yes. Spoonriver? Sure. I have my own way, they have their own way.
NORTON: What’s your take on the Minneapolis / St. Paul restaurant scene… both in general, and in the light of the recession?
ATANALIAN: I go out a lot. We have some great chefs… do I think the recession has had an impact? People still want to eat. They go out. If you take the new cuisine, the sous vide and the molecular gastronomy… is that going to work here? No. Let’s be real.
We’re in Minnesota. you gotta cook for the people in Minnesota. You gotta understand who’s in Minnesota. We’re not Chicago. We’re not touristic. Do we have chefs that beat chefs in New York? Yes. Do we have better product than anywhere else? Yes. But people go on vacation and have frog legs, but when they come home, they don’t want that. They want something they can recognize.
NORTON: How does that translate to your food here…?
ATANALIAN: It’s understanding if I’m going to put a lamb shank on the plate, I know everyone in Minnesota is going to know what a lamb shank is. But it’s up to me to teach you how to enjoy it with something other than just tomato sauce. It’s up to me to make it interesting to you.
NORTON: Any big plans for the restaurant and its food in 2010?
ATANALIAN: I’m happy where we are right now. But could it get better? Of course. It’s America!