- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Washington’s beautiful autumn weekends invite a trip to Virginia’s colorful forests and captivating towns. Culpeper, one of those haunting remnants of a time gone by, is just 60 or so miles down the road.

Driving time ranges from 1-1/4 to almost two hours, depending on traffic. Culpeper is steeped in Civil War history. “The gallant [John] Pelham,” the beau ideal of the Confederacy, described by Robert E. Lee as “the grandest flirt there ever was,” was killed in a misbegotten cavalry charge at nearby Kelly’s Ford. History hovers close over Culpeper’s main streets, studded with interesting little shops (a great place for Christmas shopping). Among its several good restaurants is a splendid one.

Foti’s is a little more than a year old. It was opened by three former employees of the Inn at Little Washington, and they know what they’re doing. Frank Maragos, the young chef-owner — he was executive sous chef at the inn — comes from a large Greek-American family in North Dakota, where his father ran the dining room in the family restaurant in Minot. His middle name is Foteos, which is shortened to Foti and means “to enlighten” or to “bring new.” A good name for this restaurant.

The menu at Foti’s is interesting, and the cooking is serious, but the restaurant is not overly formal — ties are neither required nor out of place. Dark wooden floors, brick walls, candles and stemmed glasses on white tablecloths create a cozy and festive atmosphere. It’s a good place to celebrate a birthday or other special occasion, or it’s a destination for a weekday lunch or a satisfying dinner at the end of a day in the country.

A basket of good bread and fresh butter arrives promptly. The choice of starters is varied: a quartet of salmon tartar, Maine lobster with johnnycakes, a fried egg “sandwich” on toasted ciabatta with Virginia ham (from the butcher around the corner). We chose a terrific salad and seared sea scallops.

The warm, plump scallops are served on cool gazpacho that has been tempered by the addition of grilled and pureed peaches. Though you couldn’t quite taste the peaches, they contributed a definite complexity to the gazpacho and smoothed the sharp edge of onion and pepper.

The salad is a wonderfully fresh combination of frisee lettuce with bits of pear and ribbons of Gruyere cheese. Toasted almonds add a perfect touch, and the whole is dressed in a light cider vinaigrette.

Other salads include a combination of roasted beets with goat cheese, arugula and fried walnuts, and a grilled asparagus salad with grape tomatoes, cucumber and red onion in a goat-cheese vinaigrette. The secret in all is the freshness of the ingredients, which Mr. Maragos finds on neighboring farms.

Main courses are equally satisfying. Dishes are prepared with the emphasis on ingredients. Often the preparation is sophisticated, but always it’s rooted in the chef’s Mediterranean heritage and an American culinary philosophy. Shrimp, scallops and lobster in a seafood paella are enhanced by a tomato broth redolent with saffron. The rice is cooked al dente. The dish is a lovely, subtle treatment of a shellfish stew.

The Foti’s version of surf and turf combines an excellent beef filet with seared shrimp. Roasted potatoes, sauteed broccoli rabe and a rich wine sauce round out the dish. Unfortunately, our shrimp, although large and attractive, were tasteless. There was a similar disappointment with the shrimp in a special of grilled tuna with shrimp. The tuna, like the filet of beef, was perfectly prepared and fresh as could be.

Duck breast, pink and tender, could not have been better. The breast was accompanied by a piece of duck sausage and duck confit wrapped in prosciutto, interesting contrasts to the breast. An enormous blackberry and slightly sweet chardonnay sauce adds the touch of sweetness that duck requires.

Entrees include a grilled loin of veal; a combination of goat-cheese-encrusted loin of lamb with grilled lamb sausage; seared halibut; and roast chicken breast with a crispy crepe filled with chickpeas. The dishes are well thought out, and sides complement the meat or fish with no hint of the precious or trendy.

Desserts are delicious, too. A trio of little pots de creme offered a rich surprise as the spoon descended from the creamy consistency at the top to the rich chocolate and espresso flavors at the bottom of the dish. A warm and delicate crepe filled with sauteed apples is simple and wonderful.

Foti’s has an excellent wine list, albeit on the dear side, including several examples of how good Virginia wines have become. Service by the young staff is friendly and enthusiastic, if a bit disorganized. There are waiters aplenty, but it was necessary more than once to get their attention to remove plates, provide more bread, take our dessert order.

Foti’s measures up to restaurants in the city, and the chef’s interpretation of dishes includes unusual accompaniments. Haute American cuisine without pretension in a disarming atmosphere in a delightful town is a pleasure indeed.

RESTAURANT: Foti’s, 219 E. Davis St., Culpeper, Va.; 540/829-8400

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday

PRICES: First courses $8 to $18; main courses $17 to $34; desserts $9.

CREDIT CARDS: Visa, MasterCard, American Express

PARKING: Ample street parking and nearby lots

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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