The vibrant atmosphere at the new Dudley's, which moved to Short Street this spring from its longtime location on South Mill Street, is a triumph for formidable interior designer Matthew Carter and a giant leap for Lexington ambience — noise level notwithstanding. Each room — the bistro bar opening onto Short Street, the adjoining dignified yet modern spaces, the muraled dining area upstairs — really warrants a separate review. But we are here to discuss food.
Chef Erik Fowler grasps that this divine setting deserves an updated culinary equivalent, a menu in equal measures hip yet classic, balancing and blending local character and continental charm. Both concept and execution deliver.
Sauces and dressings are generally tours de force of the fine appetizers. Green goddess dressing, a sea-colored pool of mayonnaise, sour cream and bright herbs, pairs perfectly with moist fried oysters and tender wahoo bites in the fruit de mer ($15). Rich red pepper aioli is the ideal dip for piping hot "gritters" ($12), crunchy sticks of deep-fried polenta with minced country ham, whose velvety cornmeal melts in your mouth.
I also liked the moo shu duck ($10). Three scallion mini crepes, smooth tangy tamarind sauce and a lively mix of watercress and Napa cabbage all redeemed the slightly dry duck confit. Thai chicken pizza ($10) topped with peanut sauce, green onions, carrots and cabbage is a salute to California fusion.
Salads are another example of the kitchen's handling of fundamentals. There is the delicate sherry vinaigrette on the simple beet and chevre salad ($9) — showcasing Sapori d'Italia's heavenly goat cheese, made in Nicholasville. And a Caesar salad's ($6) cold, crisp romaine is always better complemented by a dressing incorporating anchovies — with a light hand, of course — than with an unsightly garnish of two or three spiky canned fish.
The sole disappointments of these two courses were the cold and dry focaccia being passed from the bread basket, and the soulless chive oil that coated the otherwise spring-fresh salad of haricots verts, tomatoes, onions and pea tendrils ($10).
Main courses, some pricey, are nevertheless generous and delicious. Chicken Elessar ($22), perhaps named for Tolkien's royal figure, is a dish of tender chicken with country ham, mushrooms, asparagus tips and an Alfredo-inspired fettuccine. The roasted duck breast ($26) with crisp skin and full-bodied cherry sauce — did I detect a whisper of star anise? — was fantastic, served simply with earthy spinach and creamy polenta.
The Asian riff to the seared ahi tuna entree ($32) came through in its slaw's sesame seed oil, spicy wasabi cream and a scoop of sticky black rice. Unfortunately, its sauce — a blood orange-soy reduction — missed the mark: The orange juice was overtaken by the concentrated soy sauce, resulting in a flavor resembling bitter molasses.
My favorite dish was the least expensive: a simple steak frites ($18). It's nice to see the undervalued "butcher's tenderloin" being used. This flavorful cut arrived perfectly grilled to medium with a mound of excellent twice-cooked fries. The only problem was, on this busy night, the beef had cooled just enough that the pat of decadenttruffle garlic butter never quite melted.
Finally, crème brûlée ($7). This slightly warm little dessert easily was shared by four. We broke off pieces of its crunchy burnt sugar and followed them with the densely sweet strawberries. It was a finish with mouthfuls of pleasure.
Reinventions can be tricky, but Dudley's hasn't skipped a beat. This is definitely a place to see, probably also to be seen, and without a doubt a place to dine.
A four-course dinner for four, including wine and beer with three of the courses and tax, was roughly $56 a person.