Tom Sietsema’s 2005 review of Foti’s

Sunday, Nov. 27, 2005

Foti’s is a textbook example of what a good education will do for you. The three principals behind this summer arrival to Culpeper spent a combined 14 years at the Inn at Little Washington, a destination that has won just about every top honor a restaurant can in this country. In their new environment, the three demonstrate, meal after meal, how much they absorbed from some of the best teachers in the business; in less than six months, Foti’s has become A Restaurant You Really Need to Know About Even If You Don’t Live Nearby.

Remember this name: Frank Maragos. He’s the quietly captivating 32-year-old chef whose Greek nickname (more on that later) explains the restaurant’s title, and whose brief appearances in the dining room to say hello and share a story make any dinner more delicious. While at the Inn, he served as executive sous chef.

The sunny presence at the door, the woman who watches over the dining room like a nanny with a fine sense of humor? That’s the chef’s English-born fiancee, Sue Wilson, who was a server at the Inn and who tells you, if you ask, about how she and her teammates scrubbed and painted this space into the handsome room it is today.

The jolly fellow helping you select something to drink is Tyler Packwood, the Inn’s former cellar master. At Foti’s, he is quick to make you feel good about ordering wine, stripping the experience of any pretension. (Unlike many of his competitors, he also acknowledges that Virginia is producing some respectable wines these days.)

Don’t expect a baby version of the Inn at Little Washington -- acres of rich fabric, nonstop whimsy and a bill that suggests a very, very, very special occasion. Plan instead on a comfortable few hours and generally excellent food in a dining room that fairly glitters with sparkling glassware and flickering candles but, with its brick walls and wood floors, stops short of making you wonder, “How am I ever going to pay for this?”

The diners surrounding you at Foti’s are alternately dressed up and down, yet every customer is treated as if he’s an investor, and many of the niceties that accompany a date at the Inn pop up here as well. Invariably, there’s someone posted outside the restaurant to bid you welcome. Ask for the restroom, and you’ll be escorted there. In a trend that’s catching on elsewhere, water is poured for everyone at the table simultaneously.

And even simple-sounding dishes tend to add up to so much more than the words used to describe them on the menu. In the “fried egg sandwich,” a pillow of toasted ciabatta comes layered with a slice of local ham, a pane of Parmesan cheese and, capping it all off, a perfect fried egg -- “breakfast for dinner,” a pal sums up the immensely satisfying combination, garnished with yellow cherry tomatoes and a splash of balsamic vinegar to remind you it’s an appetizer. In another fetching display, half-circles of beets alternate with goat cheese to form little towers; the salad is made more special with walnuts fried in olive oil and single leaves of baby arugula arranged just so.

Maragos was raised in Minot, N.D., by parents who owned a supper club and were part of a large Greek community; in his mid-twenties, he spent time in Providence, R.I., where he attended the Johnson & Wales cooking school. That bit of background is helpful in deciding which direction to take on the menu. Zero in on seafood and anything with a Mediterranean tilt.

In one distinguished appetizer, choice morsels of lobster, brushed with a delicate tarragon mayonnaise, come wrapped in a sheer ribbon of cucumber; the four little bundles sit on a tingling vinaigrette of sherry and beets along with a thatch of carrot matchsticks. “New Orleans style” barbecued shrimp doesn’t have quite the rough-and-tumble savor you might expect, given the adjectives, but the first course nevertheless brings together big, juicy shrimp and a tender garlic biscuit. The paella, though, is a tour de force: Rice enriched with saffron, toasted garlic, wine and bay leaf serves as a luscious canvas for seafood -- beautifully cooked lobster and shrimp that have been assembled on the plate to look like a whole lobster. “Some people are afraid of food looking at them,” says the chef. “We like to play a bit.” The presentation is witty and elegant, something you could easily imagine being offered at Maragos’s former employer.

The paella’s equal in the meat department: lamb served three ways. A pesto-edged piece of loin, cooked to keep the meat moist, is joined on its plate with a tender shank that collapses at the touch of a tine, and lamb sausage that resonates with cumin and garlic. The trio of proteins -- the shank, braised with cinnamon and chilies, is particularly appealing -- rests on a shallow base of white beans accented with tangy tomatoes and crisped bacon. “White beans,” the chef muses, “make you feel good inside.” Certainly his treatment does.

Because the menu regularly changes, I can’t say you’ll find the same hits. What I can forecast are high-quality ingredients, handled in such a way to make them shine, and charmingly staged.

If there’s a crack in this picture, it’s the occasional heavy hand with the sweet notes (oddly, this is not an issue with desserts). Salmon glazed with a tamarind sauce edges on cloying, for instance, a slip partially righted by some pleasantly bitter broccoli rabe and fragrant jasmine rice on the plate. And otherwise succulent sliced duck breast, treated to a piece of foie gras, is ever so slightly diminished by a “caramelized chardonnay” sauce made with a drop too much vanilla.

Foti’s applies the same thought to its desserts as it does to its savory courses. An autumn sampler of smooth pumpkin cheesecake, comma-shaped poached pear and amazingly light apple crumb cake -- “We had [the cake] on the table at every family get-together,” the chef might tell you on one of his walk-throughs in the dining room -- comes as close as you can get to leaves crunching underfoot and a bite in the air while remaining indoors. And as ubiquitous as cookie plates have become in restaurants, this one tastes like it has some good stories behind it, because it does: The biscotti and the honey-dipped walnut cookie, fragrant with orange, use Maragos family recipes; the buttery, strawberry jam-filled linzer cookie is present because “my sous chef is Austrian and insisted on it,” Maragos says, referring to Andreas Ortner, another alumnus of the Inn. Even the more obvious inclusions -- chocolate pot de creme, banana coconut tart -- are several subtle notches above what other restaurants of this caliber offer.

The restaurant’s moniker? Maragos says it’s a family name derived from the first name of the man, Foteos, who introduced the chef’s grandparents to each other. In Greek, according to Maragos, it means “to enlighten” or “bring new.”

How fitting.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

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