Sanctuary's cobia with chocolate hazelnut spread, star fruit salsa, and sweet torta by chef Patrick Atanalian
In the search for the Twin Cities' best culinary creations, we often come across dishes that stop us mid-bite and force us to reflect on the level of thought and artistry chefs put into their work. The efforts of the chefs are often laborious, and the end results are regularly consumed before the full concept can be appreciated. We've been tracking down some of these dishes to get the chef's side of the story: their thoughts, motivations, and processes. It's our hope that we can give you a deeper insight into the talents of Twin Cities chefs and to have a better understanding of what you're getting when you sit down to dinner.
Chef Patrick Atanalian is the man behind the menu at arguably one of the Twin Cities most underrated restaurants, Sanctuary
. The restaurant features an eclectic blend of flavor and ingredient combinations that are bound together using a combination of classic French and modern culinary technique. The idea is to deliver to diners recognizable ingredients while introducing them to new and often eccentric flavors.
French-born chef Atanalian has received high praise from many of the city's top critics, and he continues to dazzle his downtown diners with a variety of unorthodox compositions. He features a rotating menu of seasonally based dishes, but he's not one to shy away from things that run to the exotic for the typical Minnesota palate. That can include Asian, Latin, and sometimes tropical ingredients. In 2001 he was given City Pages' "Best Mad Genius" award.
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Coming from a background steeped in culinary tradition, Atanalian has an extensive history with food. Having grown up in the south of France, he explains a bit of his history with food. "First it was a survival thing. Nobody's gonna cook for you in my house," Atanalian says. "My dad being in the business helped me a lot. My dad used to run a lot of restaurants. Now he's retired. Now he's just fishing. Fishing, drinking, and smoking, that's all he does all day," he chuckles.
"He had different restaurants and he did a lot of different kinds of food. One fine dining, one in the middle, one pizza place -- a wood-oven pizza place. He had a fish one. He did a little bit of everything."
Atanalian attended a culinary program while in school that had a major focus on work study. "It was a two-year program, and it was work and school at the same time. You work for three weeks and you go to school for one week. When you go to school you start at five in the morning, and when you get out it's like 10 at night," Atanalian recalls. "it wasn't fun, it wasn't easy, but you had to do it."
He apprenticed around Marseille for a while and spent a little time at his father's restaurants, but then one day he decided to jump the pond. "It was the land of freedom," he jokes.
He initially landed in New York, where he worked at a small Italian restaurant, but he also spent a good amount of time bouncing around to a variety of places, including restaurants in the south, Boston, and even a short stint in Montreal. Eventually he fell in love, and that's what finally brought him to Minnesota. "You don't move for the snow," he says.
Atanalian has worked for a variety of classic Twin Cities restaurants, including Kapoochi's and the New French Café. While he was at the Loring Café it was named to Bon Appetit's list of top 100 places to eat in the U.S.
After taking a short reprieve from restaurant life, he met an old friend who introduced him to Sanctuary. Since then, he's been working his mojo making dishes that keep Twin Cities' gastronomes on their toes, using techniques he's picked up along his travels and from his arsenal of cookbooks. "You learn the basics, but then it's up to you to develop your library, your vocabulary, so that's what I did. I have so many books. I get excited like a little kid when I get a new book."
The dish he has chosen to share with us is a perfect representation of what Atanalian is all about. It features fresh cobia with accompaniments that accent the fish in fun and playful ways.
The chef simply seasons the fish with salt and pepper and then sears it to perfection. On the plate he paints a stroke of chocolate hazelnut spread, a homemade nutella, that is both sweet, rich, and true to his French lineage. He then spoons on a line of curried carrot puree, which has a vibrant, yellow-orange hue. The finished piece of fish is placed across both sauces and topped with a sweet, anise-flavored torta. The dish is finished with a spoonful of star fruit salsa and a few jasmine flowers.
For many, the sound of these ingredients on the same plate might be a little off-putting, but Atanalian has the skill to make them sing. The rich sweetness and nuttiness from the chocolate spread and the sweet anise flavors of the torta complement the natural sweetness of the fish yet bring out a decadent, almost earthy flavor from the flaky cobia. The carrot puree adds a floral element to the dish, while the star fruit salsa cuts through everything with a thrust of acidity, while binding all the flavors together in a true showing of flavor composition.
Atanalian's playful yet inspired approach to food is truly a unique addition to the Twin Cities dining scene. In a restaurant culture that's currently obsessed with various foams, gels, and other culinary wizardry, Atanalian shows us the kind of magic a chef can work using little more than a combination of flavors. If you haven't been to Sanctuary, or if you haven't been in a while, it's more than worth checking out, as it's easily one of the Twin Cities' most beautiful hidden gems.