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Foti's: Is an outpost of English civility in a town whose name could have been Mayberry except its founding fathers decided on Culpeper. The hundred plus year old building houses a very personal and private restaurant with a dark brown pressed tin ceiling and wooden floors to match with chandeliers, recessed lighting and table top candles, an exposed brick wall lining one entire side and occasional Grecian columns outlining a particular area of this very special and romantic dining fantasy. With subdued lighting and exuberant staff along with the escapist small town charm this is an extraordinary setting for what is the best new restaurant of 2006 for the Greater Washington area. Foti's captures the charm and sophistication of Georgetown or Old Town while retaining the warmth and innocent appeal of a sleepy southern hamlet where Juliet might be enraptured with the cuisine of Romeo-if he were a chef. Even Verona has nothing on this setting for dining and romantic indulgence. In Culpeper Juliet is named Sue and Romeo is Frank. Both met in Little Washington at The Inn. They and six or seven others from The Inn, over time, have moved here to create a truly special place in the Mid Atlantic. Foti's now has a three week wait for a table on Fridays and Saturdays because of rave reviews in both the Washington Post and Washingtonian. With the connection of the chef and hostess along with the former sommelier from The Inn at Little Washington, Foti's has already been adopted by the Washington Press as the most recent outpost of Great Cuisine. And it justly is. Last night my wife and I did our best to work our way through its menu. A signature dish of a Great restaurant is one which literally causes your mouth to open, to uncontrollably exclaim "Wow" when it is served. To deeply inhale its enthralling effluvia, to moan after savoring its first taste, to breathe heavily and evenly after swallowing the first orgasmic bite. "Vanilla roasted Maine lobster with Jonny cakes and a Chardonnay butter sauce" is such a dish. Live lobster is roasted and shelled then the lobster meat is sautéed with chardonnay butter, lobster stock is added and then reduced down with caramelized sugar. All of this is plated on top of several Rhode Island Jonny Cake discs with the sauce drizzled around and over. Simply, a Great dish worth of The Inn nearby or The Fat Duck, the three Michelin star and one of England's two best restaurants near the home of Sue Maragos, Frank's wife and partner who together open Foti's. Sue moved here five years ago from her home near the Cotswolds, apprenticed at The Inn and now with her husband has moved onto a national stage much sooner than either of them may have anticipated. A "fried egg sandwich on garlic toasted Ciabatta with baby arugula, Virginia country ham and parmesan cheese" is another signature first course. Inventive, imaginative, excellent. Still, a short step below the imaginatively delicious excess of the vanilla lobster. "Olive oil poached tomatoes on a roasted garlic and fresh herb crust with sautéed winter vegetables" is a vegetarian entrée that we had as a middle course. It was delicious. For entrees two signatures stand out: "seafood paella with shrimp and lobster on Jasmine rice with a saffron scented tomato broth" and "Surf and Turf a la Greque" which is a "grilled beef tenderloin and pan seared shrimp with lemon roasted potatoes, sautéed broccolini and a Byzantine sauce." The seafood paella is an Americanized version of the Valencian dish, but no less for this. Fresh lobster and fresh shrimp along with chunks of San Marzano tomatoes nestled in Jasmine rice highlighted an excellent version of the Spanish classic. The "turf" portion of the "La Greque" included a filet which was as flavorful as any I have had on this side of the Atlantic. Succulently delicious, a savory worth savoring every bite. Desserts actually came up a step short: chocolate pots de crème were very good but not over the top good as, say, the pots de crème from Susan Wallace at Black Salt. A "chocolate mousse tower on a roasted cocoa bean and hazelnut shortbread drizzled with a citrus and vanilla clear caramel sauce" was very, very good. But similarly not quite up to the level of the first two courses. The hospitality and warmth of Foti's is distinctly European, perhaps Sue would say English for where she is from. Every customer is made to feel special, every table for each server and each assistant is set as the only table in the room. While there are other tables it is only yours' that matters. This is not The Inn. But it may be the English, perhaps the French countryside in a small town where one stops in and is accepted as a guest, the only guest in a house where the guest is all that matters. Foti's is a cross between Southern hospitality and charm and European romance and style. All in a small town sixty miles and sixty minutes south of the Beltway, but a Century and an ocean apart from anything else available here. The three week wait for weekends is only going to get longer; soon there will be a wait for weeknights. This is, indeed, a special place that only reinforces the Greater Washington area as one of America's best. We are very lucky that Foti's opened here. It could just as easily been near the Cotswolds as it is in Culpeper. Three and a half stars. Just a whisk away from four. I will also be hosting a private dinner there in late April/early May. Joe Heflin Links for reviews of Foti's: Tom Sietsema in the Post Kliman's review One more comment, this about wine. Last night we had a bottle of 2002 Artazu Santa Cruz, a single vineyard 100% Grenache from Spain. It was $60.00 on their wine list. We really enjoyed it. I just discovered that this lists for $43.00, their markup then an extremely reasonable 50% over what I may have paid for it in a store. In fact the best price that I can find on the internet is $32.99 from the Wine Library. My guess is that as this restaurant's popularity and fame spreads all of their prices will go up. For now this seems even more like a "bargain" of sorts for what it delivers.
Potential chaps aside (ugh, that pun almost tells itself), here's a Culpeper-At-A-Glance itinerary I wrote for a friend a few months ago. I make the trek from Alexandria to Culpeper a couple times a year, well worth it for the foodie finds and other treasures. My forays into Foti's have been typically lackluster, so it does not make the cut when I make this trek. Culpeper-At-A-Glance Itinerary *Saturday is the better day to go, some of the stores are closed on Sunday. *If you eat at It's About Thyme, and you absolutely should, call ahead to see if you can make a reservation. *Load a cooler in your trunk with some ice packs so you won't have to stress about transporting any tasty vittles you are sure to procure from the little stores. *On Route 522, about five minutes outside of downtown, make sure to visit a store called "Food For Thought". This place is small, but a gem of local meats, cheeses, honey, and all manner of gourmet delights. The owner used to have a location right in the middle of downtown, but moved to this larger location a few years ago. The store is a standalone structure, hard to miss. Here's the website: http://www.foodforthoughtva.com/Welcome.html And a bit of local gossip for you: the owner of Food for Thought is the ex-wife of the owner of It's About Thyme. They get along marvelously and are both incredibly passionate about local agriculture. *On the main drag in Culpeper, stores not to miss include the following: -JANAL leather: A leather boutique with charming and distinctive pieces you won't find anywhere else. Jackets, shoes, purses, and an interesting collection of jewelry. Here's their website: http://janalleather.com/About_Us.htm The craftsmanship is of astonishing quality and worth a browse, even if, like me, you generally don't wear that kind of stuff. -Cameleer: The world market store that brings me back to Culpeper again and again. Their room in the back is chock full of natural fabric clothing (hemp, tencel, silk) that is to die for. It's spendy, but the pieces are hard to find anywhere else. The front room has imported household goods like table settings, trinket boxes, etc. -The Frenchman's Corner: This is actually two stores. One is for kitchenwares, with a wine and cheese store in the back, and the other is all gourmet food items with hopelessly tasty chocolate selections. The father runs the food store, the son runs the other one. All top notch merchandise and worth a long browse. -Knakals Bakery: The ham biscuits available here will make you praise the Commonwealth at the top of your lungs--so quintessentially Virginian! The ham is from the Calhoun Ham company, another Culpeper-based food business. The Calhoun storefront is worth a browse, but it's not on the main street. It's two blocks over, and there is nothing else over there. So if anyone you know is a huge fan of Virginia ham, check the stores hours and drive by on your way out of town to save the walk. Their website: http://www.calhounhams.com/ -Coffee shop: The coffee shop on Main Street is called RavensNest. They brew a tasty cup and have a large seating area if you want to pass some time. All desserts and biscotti are homemade. -It's About Thyme restaurant is right across the street from The Frenchman's Corner. Adjacent to the restaurant is the most delightful market called Thyme Market. It sells everything from the house-made cheese (Better Than Cheddar, which is as the name suggests), smoked meats, pickled everything, and by-the-pound gourmet entrees. You might want to enjoy the restaurant first, and then hit the market second so you can pick out those things you enjoyed most from the menu. There are also several other stores that I generally do not go into, but are probably a lot of fun. They include cute little places like this one: http://www.reigning-cats-dogs.com/