By Sarah Elkins
There’s a wild flower blooming in White Sulphur Springs.
This spring I wandered into White Sulphur Springs to visit its newest restaurant. It’s easy to find, about a quarter mile down from the Greenbrier Resort, on the left. I can’t miss the Queen Anne style Victorian house with a cupola fit for a princess, a picket fence, and a brightly colored sign that reads Sanctuary Living Cuisine in a burst of greens, flowers and veggies.
The house was formerly an antique shop with a perennial for-sale-by-owner sign at the fence. I am overjoyed by the colorful and lively rebirth of what I think is White Sulphur Springs’ most adorable structure. After quickly appreciating the street-side view, a visual feast in itself, I spend a moment alone on the ample porch imagining a perfect summer brunch overlooking the flowers in the front beds. I’ve made a mental note to come back for their celebrated Sunday brunch as soon as warm weather arrives. I hope they’ll have a seat for me on the porch.
The porch leads to a pretty front room with a host’s desk and parlor space for sitting. On bookshelves, there are bottles of West Virginia maple syrup and balsamic vinaigrette from Frostmore Farm just north of here in Dunmore. The Himalayan salt, also for sale, reminds me this restaurant is owned by the same family operating The Salt Cave and Spa, situated just outside of White Sulphur Springs, up 92, as we say around here.
Today I’m meeting Josh Baldwin, the magazine’s editor, for lunch. He’s already here and chatting with owner Adriana Grecu when I arrive. I follow his voice through the restaurant’s dining area which encompasses two large, open rooms that in this house’s first life were likely the formal living room and dining room. Josh is in a smaller alcove to the left. This is where your order begins before being invited to select your own table. Straight ahead is a large glass case full of desserts. It immediately makes sense to me why one TripAdvisor.com reviewer wrote that she had her dessert before her entrée when she visited from out of town. I am considering doing the same thing.
To the right, a tall white counter is where we would order if we were here for a typical lunch. We, however, will be tasting what ends up being half of the abundant menu. Behind the counter a chalkboard covering most of the wall displays a long list of coffees, teas, smoothies and juices. The restaurant is also equal parts juice bar and bakery. Below the chalkboard, wire baskets hang in a row, full of fresh limes, oranges, peaches, pears and one pineapple. Everything served at Sanctuary Living Cuisine is fresh, organic or local, and all three whenever possible.
“Food is more than entertainment. It is our medicine or poison,” Adriana says. This belief, which drives the mission of the restaurant, actually grew out of a terrifying event for the Grecu family.
Adriana and her husband Marius are artists, faux finishers who, prior to landing in White Sulphur Springs, traveled all over the world designing luxurious spaces in casinos. Then their son Robert was diagnosed with a hole in his heart. That was a paradigm shift for their family. They began exploring one basic question in an effort to sustain their son: What does the body need to be at its optimum performance?
Seeking the answer to that question led Adriana and Marius to rethink their relationship to food and eventually open Sanctuary Living Cuisine.
The restaurant is a partnership between Adriana, Marius, and Adriana’s sister, Corina Dimitru-Fritz. They have also received enormous support from the One Foundation, an organization that promotes the efforts of businesses committed to ecologically-responsible community development. Corina, who has operated bakeries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, makes the restaurant’s pastries and desserts from scratch with organic sugar and the best flour she can find.
Adriana laughs; when the idea for the restaurant was in its infancy, she called her sister and said, “Girl, you gotta help me with this!” With that Corina arrived in the mountains of West Virginia. Now, as Adriana puts it, “She is in the trenches here, day and night.”
Another integral member of the team is Yvonne Ortiz, the restaurant’s chef and manager. Yvonne came along with Corina from Pennsylvania.
“Yvonne made a huge life journey to be a part of this project, uprooting her family to move here,” Adriana says.
Adriana’s palms are together and she bows, a one-second prayer of gratitude for Yvonne’s and her sister’s sacrifices. Love and gratitude are as much a part of the menu as health-conscious food is. But, there’s another tenet on which this business is grounded—community. It is policy that 30% of the business’ profit goes directly back to the community. Adriana hopes to create scholarships for students who want to study nutrition and culinary arts alongside the restaurant’s founders. She also envisions what she calls a Harvest Table, a free meal offered to the community during harvest time each year. At the current rate of their success, the Harvest Table may be a reality this year.
Sanctuary Living Cuisine operates with a grounded mission and ambitious vision for what’s possible. But, for today, my mission, ambitious in its own right, is to taste my way through their diverse menu in one sitting. So, Josh and I find a table next to a large window covered by a lacey string fringed curtain that I imagine children like to braid until their parents make them stop.
We begin with Seasoned Chicken and Rice, a vivid yellow dish with lots of turmeric (not too much—the flavor was amazing) along with mushrooms, zucchini, and spinach. The menu is heavy on fresh vegetables and fruits, purposely so, but some dishes include local, free-range chicken.
Adriana explains they made the decision to offer vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and keto dishes so that anyone can walk in the door and say “these are my dietary restrictions” without feeling marginalized.
We sample the Garden Pesto Penne Pasta featuring various vegetables and greens in a cream sauce, a dish Adriana would call “bridge food.” Bridge food is something an unadventurous diner might choose because it’s familiar, an item that might easily be found on an Applebee’s menu. Once lured in by the familiarity of an old standby, she launches a sneak attack of surprising zest and fresh ingredients.
For those with a wilder palate, there’s the Balsamic Berry Melt. This sandwich overflows with a sweet berry compote—blueberries mostly, it seems—with fresh spinach and melted mozzarella. The result is an adventure in textures—crusty bread vies with the creamy mozzarella and berries. It is the thing I will order for my future Sunday brunch on the front porch. This delightful sandwich arrives with a side of Cauliflower Buffalo Bites, signaling the owners’ belief that food can be fun, healthy, and, on occasion, lightly fried.
Next, two enormous salads land on the table, either one a meal in itself. The Harvest Honeycrisp Salad brings together kale, honey crisp apples, cheddar, pepitas, toasted pecans and a cinnamon shallot vinaigrette, in an equally sweet and spicy combination. If a salad can have an overarching theme, this one’s is cinnamon, and it works really well. The second salad is Candied Almond and Mandarin Salad. Mixed greens, mandarin oranges, apples, dried cranberries, feta and candied almonds are served with an orange poppy seed dressing. It reads more like a fruit salad than a salad-salad in the traditional sense, but the greens are plentiful and the feta plays well balancing the sweetness. Actually, I don’t always enjoy the particular bite of feta, but this salad might just be its natural habitat.
It’s inadvisable to try their desserts on such a full stomach, but we are more than “tasting” napoleons with layers of puffed pastry and custard, cream puffs, and rugelach, a croissant-like pastry with a nutty sweet filling. If it weren’t so good, I might be embarrassed by how ridiculous we look lording over enough desserts for a table three times the size of ours. If I must pick a favorite, it’s the napoleon, but I can see ordering more than one dessert for my eventual summer brunch.
Beyond entrees, sandwiches, salads, sides and desserts, there are also smoothies and juices. The Green Mango smoothie, my favorite, combines mango, cucumber, cilantro, coconut water and lime. As full as I am, I end up finishing it on my short drive home. But, Bunny Brew, fresh carrot and apple juice, is a close second. Parents can fool the most vegetable-resistant kid with this drink. Between the cute name, natural sweetness and thick texture, little ones will never suspect it’s healthy, too.
I can’t help but think of this new restaurant’s vibrancy against the backdrop of White Sulphur Springs’ recent history. It has been nearly two years since the devastating flood that wiped out a large swath of this little town known mostly for the Greenbrier Resort. Today it feels like Sanctuary Living Cuisine is foretelling a new, vigorous springtime for the town that has struggled to emerge from the floodwaters.