Sarkis’s Mediterranean Restaurant Dishes Out Mezze and More in Wells River | 7 Nights Spotlight | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Sarkis’s Mediterranean Restaurant Dishes Out Mezze and More in Wells River

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Sarkis’s Mediterranean Restaurant - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sarkis’s Mediterranean Restaurant

Chef Paul Sarkis is fluent in seven languages, including the Aramaic of biblical times. In his native Beirut, he earned doctorates in anthropology and psychology. All that might lead you to conclude this extroverted New American is wasting his talents by running a restaurant in the tiny border town of Wells River.

Sarkis’s Mediterranean Restaurant - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sarkis’s Mediterranean Restaurant

That is, until you actually dine at Sarkis's Mediterranean Restaurant. For decades, the pair of huge dining rooms here served up burgers and all-you-can-eat fried clams. Sarkis replaced the French fries and sticky buns with Middle Eastern dishes such as stuffed grape leaves and hummus. The jovial Sarkis doesn't just cook this way out of national pride: He's compelling his customers to eat healthier.

As Sarkis makes the rounds from table to table, telling stories of the old country, he's eager to mention that he refuses to cook with salt. He says his food needs only lemon, herbs, garlic and sumac to sing — as well as splashes of the heart-healthy olive oil that is grown and pressed by his parents back home.

It's true, and people come from all over the Northeast Kingdom to sample Sarkis' $28 mezza special. The 12-course meal sounds rich, but the small plates are light and packed with vegetables and grains — from nutty hummus and flaky falafel to lemony grape leaves stuffed with tender rice.

Sarkis’s Mediterranean Restaurant - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sarkis’s Mediterranean Restaurant

A zingy tabbouleh, made with bulgur, is studded with parsley, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. Za'atar — an oil-based dip of sumac, garlic, sesame seeds and thyme — is delicious and earthy. And the rarest of these starters, literally, is the kibbeh nayyeh: The Lebanese steak tartare is made from grass-fed beef sourced at St. Johnsbury's PT Farm. The meat is finely chopped, blended with onions and bulgur, lightly seasoned with cumin, and then topped with lemon juice, olive oil and minced parsley. It's a cool, herbaceous cloud of beef.

The entrées are no less flavorful. To make the meltingly tender shish taouk, Sarkis marinates chicken breast for three days in garlic and lemon juice. A side dish of garlic purée, called toum, layers each bite with astringent, creamy notes.

Diners shouldn't leave without sampling baalawa, an array of tiny, honeyed pastries. Sarkis might even invite you to toast with a shot of arak, a bracing, anise-flavored spirit akin to ouzo. You'll drink to your health — and Sarkis'.

This article was originally published in 7 Nights: The Seven Days Guide to Vermont Restaurants & Bars in April 2012.