"We're fully booked," the hostess at Sanctuaria says, her smile an apology, her tone a mild corrective. You should have made a reservation. We scan the spacious, dimly lighted bar. The Winter Olympics play on flat-screen TV monitors, and the sunlight reflecting off the ski slopes casts a warm white glow over the crowded room. There are no seats here, either. Then, suddenly, a four-top readies to leave. We pounce, claiming the table even before the bartender can retrieve the previous diners' signed receipt.
It's the perfect storm of St. Louis dining: an unexpectedly temperate Saturday night in the midst of this relentlessly cold winter meets the high-pressure system of a new tapas bar.
Sanctuaria opened this past November in the Grove neighborhood of Forest Park Southeast, the latest venture from Dr. Gurpreet Padda and Ami M. Grimes, the team behind Café Ventana and the new iteration of Chuy Arzola's. As at those two restaurants, Padda and Grimes have tabbed Chris Lee (the Ritz-Carlton, Kirk's American Bistro, Melange) to lead the kitchen.
Lee's menu does betray more Spanish influence than most local tapas restaurants', but for the most part this remains "tapas" in the sense of "small plates." The restaurant itself describes its fare as "Wild Tapas." I don't know what the phrase means. I do know that it quickly became a punch line among my food-crazed friends. Really, the restaurant seems designed to push as many buttons as possible on the savvy restaurantgoer's B.S. detector. The exterior windows are painted orange, with food terms lettered over that base in white. The décor mixes Day of the Dead skeletons, vintage movie posters and a giant mirror that looks as if it had been purchased at an estate sale at Versailles.
Yet as we lean over our table, straining to hear over the din of shouted bar conversations, rattling cocktail shakers and pulsating lounge music as a friend shares one of those Only in St. Louis stories ("...so after the fire department extinguishes the van, and the cops leave without taking a statement, we find out the guy is our building's elevator repairman..."), sharing a spread that ranges from simple wedges of moist cornbread spiked with jalapeño, Chihuahua cheese and honey butter to grilled lamb chops dressed with a sophisticated salsa of Bosc pear and pine nuts, we conclude that while Sanctuaria's branding might be silly and its décor ridiculous, damn, Chris Lee can cook.
The "Wicked Good Shrimp" has a "wild" name, compounded by the menu's description: "Fresh tiger prawns, sautéed in spices — love and a touch of naughty." Really, though, this is nothing more complicated — or naughty — than plump shrimp in a thick, garlicky, peppery tomato sauce that you might be tempted to devour with a spoon. This is comfort food, unpretentious at heart, enjoyed while sitting in some wind-whipped café along the Costa do Marisco, watching the fishing fleets return to port, and when your server asks whether you'd like extra bread to sop up the rest of the sauce, you'll say yes.
Other dishes are more ambitious: the aforementioned lamb chops, accented with the It Spice — though appropriate here — smoked paprika, softened with the mildly sweet Bosc pear and rounded out by the lightly tannic pine nuts. Rarely can vegetarians claim the best entrée, but they might have an argument at Sanctuaria. "Quinoa alla Doc's Mom" brings oak-roasted piquillo peppers stuffed with a mixture of quinoa, raisins and saffron. The peppers are served in sofrito, the traditional Spanish sauce of tomatoes and onions, but you will find yourself pushing past its assertive flavor, chasing the subtle, alluring taste of the quinoa mixture.
Lest we forget that this is a "tapas" bar in St. Louis in 2010, there are sliders. Yet even these provide a welcome variation on a tired trend. Here the slider patties are a blend of ground pork and chorizo. Topped with a tangle of crisp shoestring Yukon Gold potatoes and served on a soft, sweet Cuban roll, they are a satisfying three-bite dish, hearty and a touch spicy. Even better is the vaca frita, steak simmered and then shredded and flash-fried so that it has a texture something like carnitas. A bright chimichurri sauce adds punch, though I could've done without the dull potato purée underneath the meat.
Those seeking a simple snack could do worse than the tostones, fried plantain chips served with a thin, hot chimichurri-like sauce and refried black beans. Baked empanadas stuffed with Chihuahua cheese and guava don't deliver much flavor on their own, but the accompanying aji-chile sauce offers quite a kick. Really, the only dish to fail outright was the one billed as spicy, crisp garlic chicken. This is served in a sauce much like that in the "Wicked Good Shrimp." Here, though, more attention needs to be paid to the chicken, the pieces of which aren't crisp but mushy, as if yanked from the frying pan much too soon.
The beer list is small but includes more craft beers than most restaurants do, including examples from the relatively new local brewer Cathedral Square. The wine list is also brief, with a South American tilt. Most intriguing are the cocktails, overseen by Matt Seiter. His drinks touch on many of the latest trends in mixology — egg whites, Yellow Chartreuse liqueur — though equally impressive is the simple "Margarita de la Casa," which to the expected tequila (Milagro Silver) and lime juice adds tamarind-infused agave syrup in the role of sweetener.
The bar scene alone can account for much of Sanctuaria's energy. At times it seems as if four or five bartenders are mixing drinks simultaneously. (It also, perhaps unavoidably, can account for slow service, as drink orders back up. Food, on the other hand, arrives promptly.) All snide comments about the décor aside, it is a pleasure to see a restaurant this alive. From our lucked-upon table in the booked-solid restaurant, I hope only that those attracted to Sanctuaria's superficial aspects — and especially those avoiding it because of those same aspects — take a second to drown out the buzz and look at the food on their plates.