Foti’s, Culpeper

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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