For almost 32 years, cavernous Warner’s Gallery Restaurant in Wells River was a quaintly decorated dinner spot known for its sticky buns and all-you-can-eat fried clams. The Norman Rockwell prints and farm equipment decorating the walls remain, and locals can still get prime rib. But diners seeking a luxury cut of beef are more likely to order filet mignon — in the form of Lebanese kofta.
In December 2010, two months after becoming a United States citizen, Beirut native Paul Sarkis took over Warner’s Gallery from Janet Warner. This month, he’ll change its name to Sarkis’ Mediterranean Restaurant.
Since Sarkis took ownership of Warner’s, it has become his mission to bring his healthy Lebanese fare to Vermont. “We stopped selling all the junk food we served before,” says Sarkis. “The only things still being fried is French fries, and I’m going to cancel them soon. I’m going to take the Pepsis out and not sell any more soda beverages. I’m doing the best I can to change the way we eat. I cannot enforce it, but I’m trying.” If Sarkis’ crusade is reminiscent of Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution,” the two chefs may have similar motives, as well as an international perspective.
Since moving to the United States in 1995, Sarkis has spent much of his time as a stay-at-home dad to three kids. Back in Beirut, he was a college professor with doctorates in both anthropology and psychology. Having studied in the United States, Sarkis’ wife, Marlene, maintained a seamless career as a physician when the couple moved to America. She now works just across the Vermont border at Cottage Hospital in Woodsville, N.H. Despite Paul Sarkis’ academic credentials and fluency in seven languages, including Aramaic, finding employment wasn’t as easy for him. Instead, he devoted himself to raising his children — and learning to cook.
“There was a lot of wasting of food,” he says of his early efforts. “If you tasted my hummus 10 years ago, you wouldn’t eat it.” Slowly, with the help of long-distance phone calls to his mother and mother-in-law, Sarkis learned how to apply his exacting standards to preparing family meals. “I’m so picky to have the best,” he says. “When I do something, I do it the right way.”
Very likely, he’ll find a way to make it profitable, too. Several years ago, Sarkis began selling his Lebanese specialties as home deliveries. In 2008, the emerging cook bought the Bradford Mill in Bradford, home to the Perfect Pear Café. Sarkis considered opening his own restaurant there, but decided it would be unfair to kick out the Pear’s chef-owner, Adam Coulter.
Instead, he remodeled the building, tripling the business at the already respected restaurant. Sarkis added a deck overlooking the Waits River and encouraged Coulter to start brewing in the basement as the Vermont Beer Company. He now touts Coulter’s brews, including Waits River Red Ale and Devil’s Den Brown Porter, as “the best beer.”
Two years later, Sarkis purchased the massive Warner’s Gallery building from the bank at a sharp discount and on credit. While buying the Perfect Pear was a business decision, Sarkis says this one was personal. “I’m fulfilling my dream to have a Lebanese restaurant,” he says. “I’m not in the business to make money. I’m in it … to promote healthy cuisine.”
His menu is inarguably good for you. The 12-course mezza dinner that has become Sarkis’ calling card may sound indulgent, but the small plates are light and mostly vegetable focused. At $28 per person, it’s also good for customers’ bank accounts. Sarkis admits that he loses money on the deal, but says he hopes it will make converts to his cuisine. “I can’t sell food I can’t eat myself. It’s the healthiest food ever,” says the bearded restaurateur, who can’t resist a good superlative.
The mezza meal begins with roasted but unsalted pistachios and cashews. This is a preview of a major feature of Sarkis’ food. He doesn’t believe in salt. “There is no salt in any of my food,” he explains. “My grandmother always tells me the good chef never uses the salt to make the food taste good — you have to play with the flavor to make it delicious.”
Sarkis relies instead on garlic, lemon and sumac to flavor his dishes. It works. The first plate is filled with three familiar Middle Eastern staples: hummus, tabbouleh and dolmas. All are well seasoned and tasty, even without the sodium. The hummus is uncommonly nutty, which Sarkis attributes to the high-quality Lebanese tahini he buys in Montréal, along with many of his other imported ingredients. Pita bread comes from Andalos Bakery in Ville Saint-Laurent, which he characteristically calls “the best Lebanese bakery in the world.”
The dolmas are lemony and full of tender rice. The grape leaves are of exceptionally good quality, as well, with no trace of the mushiness often characteristic of the canned variety. The zingy tabbouleh is made with bulgur and finely chopped local parsley, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. Sarkis says he obtains most of his produce locally when it’s in season. All year, PT Farm in St. Johnsbury supplies him with the beef he uses in many dishes.
The Levantine equivalent of Italian panzanella salad is called fattoush. Sumac defines the taste of Sarkis’ version, made with bits of toasted pita, lettuce, tomato, onion and cucumber. The dried, ground berries have a lemony flavor that characterizes much of his food and mixes beautifully with another representative Lebanese taste, fresh mint.
Another dominant ingredient in Sarkis’ cuisine is olive oil. His parents grow and press the rich-tasting nectar themselves, a practice the chef doesn’t consider noteworthy. “In Lebanon, every family does it, almost,” he says with a shrug. “We only eat the great olive oil.”
The oil is more nutty than fruity, a good complement to the garlic-heavy flavors of fassoulia, a salad of tender, aromatic lima beans; and to a braised green-bean dish called loubieh. The deep olive taste makes no stronger appearance than in Sarkis’ za’atar, a mix of sumac, garlic, sesame seeds and fresh, green herbs in an oil-based dip that sings with biblical flavor. After testing diners on their pronunciation of the dish’s name (the more gravelly emphasis on the first syllable, the better), Sarkis explains that he provides French bread slices rather than more traditional pita to better soak up the dip.
It’s clear that Sarkis adores holding court at his restaurant. He makes a habit of pulling up a chair to talk with diners about everything from his theories on global warming to the mathematical function he claims he invented in grade school. However, as the primary chef at Warner’s, the owner must often return to the kitchen. He makes almost all the Lebanese food he serves, while recent Johnson & Wales University grad Ian Zaveruha prepares American fish and pasta dishes for more conservative Northeast Kingdom and Upper Valley diners. Sarkis says Zaveruha is well on his way to mastering the Lebanese recipes, too.
But Sarkis doesn’t yet entrust his apprentice with the job of making kibbeh nayyeh. The Lebanese tartare is sought out by fans of the dish, and diners have come here from all over the state to try it, Sarkis says. The ultra-finely chopped grass-fed beef is lightly seasoned with cumin and other spices and mixed with onions and bulgur, then topped with lemon, olive oil and parsley. Spread on a bit of pita or eaten plain, it’s a light, cool cloud of beefiness.
The same meat mixture reappears on the menu in the form of kibbeh aras. This time, it’s molded into Hershey’s Kisses-shaped bites and baked. Many customers incorrectly assume that kebbe aras and similar dishes are traditionally made with lamb, says Sarkis. In fact, he explains, while lamb and goat are often used in tartares in his home country, cooked meat is almost always beef. In the U.S., Sarkis uses beef for tartares, too, because American lamb and goat breeds don’t taste as good to him as his native stock.
The kebbe aras shares a plate with similarly shaped falafel, which is crumbly and flaky on the outside and soft inside. Like the hummus, it takes its flavor more from tahini than chickpeas. On the side, a garlic purée called toum adds astringent but creamy flavor.
The sauce is also delicious with Sarkis’ crown jewel, shish taouk. The marinated chicken breast is a far cry from the gyro-style meat carved at Lebanese fast food joints across Montréal. After soaking it in garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and pepper for three days, Sarkis grills the meltingly tender, surprisingly sweet fowl. It’s even better combined with a tangy spoonful of ful mudammas, a fava-bean stew.
Sarkis has allowed Zaveruha to prepare the kofta on his own tonight. The brick of chopped filet mignon layered, lasagna-like, with tomatoes and potato slices is ultra-moist, but not at all greasy. The young chef has cooked up a winner.
Dinner winds down with a plate of buttery, honeyed desserts. The best of the bunch are the tiny bird’s nests of kataifi pastry wrapped around barely sweetened pistachios.
It’s an ideally adult dessert to accompany a shot of arak, a 100-plus-proof anise-flavored alcohol similar to ouzo. When it’s mixed with water, the anise oils diffuse, giving the potent drink a milky appearance. It’s just the kind of alchemy Sarkis works when he combines healthy ingredients to make a memorably decadent dinner.
Warner’s Gallery Restaurant (soon to be called Sarkis’ Mediterranean Restaurant), 2284 Route 302, Wells River, 429-2120.