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Joe H

Foti's, Modern American in Old Town Culpeper - Chef Frank Maragos and GM Sue Maragos - Temporarily Closed and Relocating in Culpepper

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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.

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"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.

One of the most important things about this dish is how it's so unashamed of being sweet. A lot of chefs flirt with sweetness early on in a meal, but this blurs the line between sweet and savory (refer to the addictive bacon-wrapped dates at Jaleo), and it may just be the dish that starts a trend - one that will probably be botched by 90% of kitchens. For first-time diners at Foti's, this is a must-try.

Cheers,
Rocks.

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Any ideas on what Vanilla Roasted means?  Where does the vanilla come into it?

That is the same question that I had. Vanilla is hardly a new flavoring to be adding to lobster, but when done properly is very good.

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They offer wine by the glass for as little as $5.00, and the server will bring the bottle to your table and present it before pouring - the wine service is first-rate and completely without pretense. I considered Foti's for the "Best Wine Programs" piece - they didn't quite make it this year, but they didn't miss by much.

Cheers,

Rocks.

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That was an interesting looking wine shop which is next door to Foti's. They were closing as we got there at six so we didn't have a chance to go in. Did you happen to stop in there, Don? If so, I'm guessing it might have been somewhat eclectic perhaps not what you'd typically expect to find in a small town like Culpeper.

By the way, have you ever been in Greenville, South Carolina? There's a restaurant there called Soby's that Foti's reminds me a great deal of.

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Joe H said:
That was an interesting looking wine shop which is next door to Foti's.  They were closing as we got there at six so we didn't have a chance to go in.  Did you happen to stop in there, Don?  If so, I'm guessing it might have been somewhat eclectic perhaps not what you'd typically expect to find in a small town like Culpeper.

Yes, a cursory pass-through while waiting for the table to be ready. I can't remember anything specific, but I recall thinking it was better than it needed to be, and also that they must supply Foti's with some of their wines.

Joe H said:
By the way, have you ever been in Greenville, South Carolina?  There's a restaurant there called Soby's that Foti's reminds me a great deal of.

Greenville? Hell, I've spent a night in Greer.

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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.

I'm intrigued by one aspect of this dish. Jonnycakes are (1) very filling and (2) something most Rhode Islanders talk about more than they eat.

How many jonnycakes are included on the plate? If the lobster is as delicious as it sounds, I suspect a lot of jonnycakes get left on the plate, unless they absorb that sauce, in which case I might eat them and forgo dessert.

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I think there were four Jonnycakes but I left none. In truth I am shameless, whatever sauce was left on the plate I sopped up with crusty bread!

---

From my wife:

"There were only two johnny cakes. The dish was served in a bowl that was somewhat narrow and deep so that the ingredients could soak up the liquid -- the best way to eat it was to cut up the lobster and the johnny cakes and then have them soak in the liquid before eating them. Very sweet and yummy."

I was wrong....again....

---

Johnson's Country Hams ("and Deli") is a world famous country ham sold from their store on a street perpendicular to the street Foti's is on. For anyone visiting Culpeper this is worth a visit. Over the years they have shipped their hams literally all over the world.

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We went again tonight for our first visit since March of last year: it was exemplery, every bit as good as I remember from our earlier visit. At 8:00 the dining room was full with perhaps sixty or so diners. At least seven or eight staff shared service with everyone near us seemingly quite happy with the pacing of their courses. We both wondered why we had waited so long to return. Foti's is, indeed, a special restaurant.

We were also told that Gourmet is going to have a feature on them in an upcoming issue and was there recently for a photo shoot.

As an aside "It's About Thyme" which is a more casual restaurant a block down the street had a line out the door when we drove by. Perhaps another reason to return to Culpeper.

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Culpeper.

Which, the thread subtitle to the contrary notwithstanding, is how the name of the town is spelled.

Sincerely,
G. Ogrify Notsy

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On our way home from Charlottesville yesterday evening, and a reception with inedible catered food, we looped off of Route 29 into downtown Culpeper to see if we could get a table or eat at the bar. We were seated at the bar, which turned out to be the one drawback of the experience, since the bar seats are uncomfortable and there is no rail to rest your feet on. The food, however, was excellent, and we really enjoyed the space. When we arrived, just after 8 p.m., the place was packed.

We started with a shared arugula and pear salad which had both slivers of parmesan and tiny cubes of gruyere, caramelized almonds and a sherry vinaigrette--lovely. I've also found a new use for dried lavender--sprinkled on sweet butter as a bread spread.

For our mains, we had duck breast and shrimp paella with jasmine rice and saffron broth. I thought the amount of tomato could have been scaled back a little in the paella, but the five huge prawns were perfectly cooked and the broth was exquisite. The duck breast must've come from a bruiser of a duck--it was huge. Perfectly medium rare, tender and juicy--the thick slices were served over a bed of red cabbage slaw and boiled new potatoes, with a sherry vinegar pan reduction. We each ate half a plate and then swapped.

Since we had to drive home, and had already had some wine at the reception we'd attended, we opted for wine by the glass. We shared a glass of white to start--a Greek white I'd never heard of, but was simultaneously complex and clean, acidic enough to work with the pear salad. We had a forgettable Chilean pinot with the duck and a rich montepulciano with the paella. Generous pours.

For dessert, we shared a multi-layered, light chocolate cake soaked in Godiva liquer and milk chocolate ganache with a dried apricot compote on the side. Very good drip coffee.

Next time I go, though, I want to sit at a table.

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Zora, I'm really glad that you and Jonathan had the opportunity to try Foti's. We really like it a lot! For us it is a very real find for dinner in the foothills of the Blueridge Mountains. I'm also curious, if you find yourselves on Maryland's Eastern shore sometime, what you might think of the Inn at Easton? We actually have it a notch or two above Foti's and feel the food, at a minimum, is equal to the Inn at Little Washington. At one third the price.

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I hadn't been to Foti's in almost three years. I had a wonderful dinner in December, 2005, but on my next visit, the quality had dropped off so precipitously that it barely seemed like the same restaurant. However, I'm an optimist by nature, and enough time had gone by where I decided to give Foti's another try, determined to match my first experience.

Now, after my third dinner at Foti's, I'm loathe to say that this restaurant seems like a shell of what it was when it first opened. The atmosphere is still charming, the service is still friendly, but the nuts-and-bolts of this restaurant - the food, and to a lesser degree the wine - just isn't the same.

Crispy Filo-Wrapped Brie ($9) was just that, served with three little ramekins of chutneys. It was pleasant, but an appetizer of Pan Seared Sea Scallops ($12) was even better, the four medium-sized, nicely seared scallops sitting atop a cauliflower puree finished with a Chardonnay butter sauce, the whole thing surrounding a clashing mix of salad.

The appetizers started with some degree of promise, but the meal bottomed out during the main course. The vaunted Fried Egg Sandwich ($10) on garlic-toasted ciabatta with baby arugula, country ham, and parmesan cheese seemed like it was slapped together by a bored line cook, the fried egg burnt with a hard yolk, the pile of greens thrown onto the plate barely cut and poorly dressed, and the whole thing having no more coherence than something you'd get at the Lazy Sundae grill. The disastrous, genuinely inedible duck course I had on my previous visit fared slightly better this time, but not by enough. (On the previous visit, I was with a known, high-level restaurant figure, and we both agreed the duck was not just bad, but dangerously bad, to the point where eating it might not be safe). On this visit, it was recommended (and ordered) medium-rare, and the miserably cooked, sliced breast of duck ($24) arrived medium-well, with virtually no sear, and came with boring, sautéed greens and a couple little roasted potatoes in a reasonably interesting toasted mustard sauce. I finished the dish, but only because I was hungry. I refuse to believe this chef doesn't know how to source, store, and cook duck, but two visits in a row is pretty damning.

I thought the Roasted Banana and Toasted Hazelnut Chocolate Pots de Crème ($8.95) would be three different flavors, but it was simply three cups of the exact same thing. Topped with a layer of banana caramel, each having its own little walnut lace cookie, these little guilt bombs were extremely heavy, somewhat clumsy, and very sweet.

Although I admire Foti's for opening as an ambitious, independently owned business, and don't wish to needlessly disparage them in this economic climate, I feel the need to alert members of the DC Dining community that the initial reviews of Foti's seem to no longer apply, and that people should only consider going if they're in the Culpeper area, and not make a special trip from Washington, DC. I wish Foti's well, and hope they continue to thrive as the modest but pleasant restaurant they are. However, what I *really* wish is for them to return to form - there's no good reason why they can't. The chef-owner and his GM-wife are both still there, and it's not like he forgot how to be a chef. Why has this place been so bad for two consecutive meals? Please, Foti's, if you're reading this ... people notice, I guarantee it. You *must* know this has happened - there's no way you can't know. Please! Go back!

Cheers,
Rocks.

Added Bonus
If you find yourself walking down Main Street in Culpeper, on your way to dinner at Foti's, you'll pass a leather-goods company named Janal Leather. I highly recommend at least looking at the place. To assist you in locating it, I'm including a photo that I snapped across the street on my cell phone.

post-2-1237819231_thumb.jpg

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Don, that's a photo that will end up on the Tonight Show. Serious. I've already forwarded it to a number of friends. Absolutely classic.

Sorry about Foti's. It's possible they've lost their enthusiasm for what now must be a very expensive restaurant in Culpeper.

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Thanks Don , we are running through Culpeper next week.

We ate a Foti's last year, late summer, based on those post reviews, was a tad expensive for what we got, I only remember the scallops and they were good. We had the brie appetizer also, I remember the portion being small.

I do remember the most memorable things about the trip were Calhouns country ham sandwiches and Kountry Kettle (sp) Whiskey, a little off the beaten path, but a great personality there to show you how he makes his shine. There was also a wine / kitchen shop up the street from Foti's with a friendly proprieter , they had a great tasting with cheeses, wine and beer.

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We had lunch on Saturday at Foti's. It was our first visit, We both had a wonderfully mellow butternut squash soup with slivers of Granny Smith apples and almonds. My wife (it was her birthday) had one of the lunch specials--a portabello mushroom sandwich with red peppers, red onion, and goat cheese. She loved the combination of soft and chewy textures. I ordered a quite complex grilled chicken, orange, and pepadew salad with a subtle vinegarette dressing.

The ambience was very appealing with a deep purple pressed tin ceiling, brick walls, and ample space between tables. East Davis Street was a pleasant surprise with a boutique hotel, an olive oil place, and a very hip coffee shop.

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It had been over two years since I'd been to Foti's, and on a Sunday afternoon, I felt like going for a drive - Foti's opened at 5:30, and I timed it so I'd get there right when they opened. It was me, and one other four top in the restaurant.

With ample parking available outside (being Sunday at 5:30), I pulled up right in front, marveled once again at how lovely Culpeper is, remembered taking the photo of Janal Leather, walked up to the restaurant, and noticed the daily specials on the A-frame sign outside - one of them was lamb. 'Hmm, local lamb,' I thought to myself.

I took a table for two along the wall near the bar, having the entire restaurant to myself to survey, and my Alice Munro to keep me company if I got lonely. Here's a good lesson for those of us coming from the DC area: I wanted an aperitif, but didn't feel like dropping the dollars on Champagne, so I ordered a glass of Prosecco ($8) before looking at the menus. But then once I did look at the menus, specifically the drink menu, I noticed that there were several sparkling wine options that were in this price range - how many restaurants in DC will serve you *any* sparkling wine in proper stemware for $8? But then, Foti's pleasantly surprised me in several different ways on this evening.

Sipping my Prosecco, two things jumped out at me on the menu, especially because I saw that lamb dish on the A-frame (whenever I see something multiple times on the menu, it "means something," although it's never entirely clear what (it could be anything from "that's what their supplier had a lot of," to "they bought too much and need to sell it"). Either way, they want to sell it, so I'm usually happy to help them.

It occurred to me that I've hardly had any peaches this summer, and seeing them in early September at a place like Foti's jabbed me like a pin. Local Peach and Baby Spinach Salad ($11) tossed in a vanilla vinaigrette with sweet and sour onions, crumbled goat cheese, and toasted almonds garnished with candied orange zest is quite a mouthful, but I saw three things only: fresh peaches, fresh spinach, and goat cheese; the rest I could work with or around. And sure enough, it was a great late-summer salad with farmers market-quality produce, the only extraneous ingredient for me being the slivers of almonds, but those are easy to deal with (and they did lend a texture). This gave me flashbacks to the brilliant grilled peaches with vanilla syrup I had late last summer at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, although that dish was one of the singularly great peach preparations I've ever eaten.

This took me through my glass of Prosecco and into a Les Roucas Sauvignon Blanc ($7) from Minervois. Where are you going to find full pours of wines such as this anymore for $7 at non happy-hour prices? Foti's wines by the glass list is one of the best in the area at this point, mainly because DC-area restaurants have all raised their prices, post-recession, and for some reason, Foti's forgot to.

Enter the Grilled Lamb Steak ($23), ordered both because of the A-frame and also because of Chef Maragos' Greek heritage. Served with oven-roasted potatoes, ouzo-pickled cucumbers, tomato-braised local beans (are you paying attention to all this?), and tzatziki. I was asked how I wanted the lamb cooked, and said "Medium-rare, or however the kitchen likes to prepare it." Medium-rare it was, and this lamb was just sensational - cut into large, bite-sized strips, and just so perfectly Greek with the potatoes and tzatziki. These potatoes seemed freshly roasted even though I don't see how that's possible - perhaps they were partially cooked, and then finished to order. Regardless, there was none of that brown-around-the-rim mushiness you get at so many restaurants that pre-cook their potatoes (oof, The Prime Rib just popped into my mind). This was pretty much a perfect dish, and even though it wasn't *that* much food, I just wasn't all that hungry, so got it wrapped to go. By the time I hit the Washington beltway, however, the dish was entirely gone, thanks to Foti's wonderful breads - rarely has there been a better road treat than the second half of this lamb course.

I asked my server if this was locally raised lamb, and he stuttered a bit. "Perhaps it's Australian," I said, trying to help him out a bit. "Yes, the owner actually just made a special dinner for some Australian friends of the house, and he bought a lot of lamb," he said. I don't know why, exactly, I thought this was either local, or from very far away, but it had a "somewhereness" to it that screamed a sense of place.

If you look at Foti's menu online, you'll see that I ordered two of the most expensive items. This restaurant is downright cheap considering its quality, and as the rising tide of economic recovery has pushed DC-area restaurants into bolder and bolder pricing, Foti's has remained quietly back in the previous decade. You should go there now, for an early Sunday dinner - the chef was there, the restaurant was empty, the meal was a bargain, the food was fantastic, and it's hard to believe that I've been coming to this restaurant now for over eight years. It almost feels like an old friend, an old friend I hadn't seen in far too long.

It's no secret that I feel Foti's went through a (very) rough patch, but after this meal, that seems like a distant memory.

Foti's rests strongly in Italics in the Dining Guide.

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Looks like they are temporarily closed and moving locations.

I'll miss the old location, but it's probably for the best - the "mall digs" reminded me of a college restaurant that I used to frequent, and Foti's deserves better. Unfortunately, I suspect that diners can probably expect higher prices as well - what I paid for my meal last autumn was ridiculous, especially the wine.

Good luck to Frank and Sue during the move, and I hope they let us know whenever they know some news.

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