Before I ever gave the food at Doodles a second thought, I was drawn to the superb design by architect Tim Mellin, who gave an old gas station a beautiful second chance at life. Who wouldn't, I thought, want to eat — or even just sit — in a spot so enveloped by natural light, so newborn with metal and fresh paint the color of morning, and surrounded by a charming collection of roosters, scattered around and looking like visitors from the Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead?
Leaving aesthetics aside, there is the environmental dimension. Doodles' take-home boxes can be composted, for example. The focus is on green whenever possible. Organic is preferred over conventionally grown, and the menu pays tribute over and over to local businesses. There are farm-raised shrimp from Bubbasue shrimp and Weisenberger Mill grits — arguably the United States' finest. And what daytime meal would be complete without the elixir of life? Here, Kentucky's best coffee, from the venerable Caffe Marco, is steeped and served fresh and smooth in a French press pot ($5.75 for a small pot).
With all this lovely consciousness, of course, one must be prepared for the inevitable informality that accompanies it — the cranked-up nostalgia of bopping '50s and '60s music, the indifferent clanking of plates and glasses, the voyeurism of the open kitchen, and the barking of "order up!" that drowns out even louder ambient noise.
But face it, that does come with the package, whether the setting is a not-so-green Midwestern truck stop, a café in Berkeley, Calif., or a fabulous re-use project in Lexington.
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What if the goal, however, is not to bask in creative architectural rescue or moral satisfaction?
At the end of the day, what if the sole objective centers on a delicious breakfast or lunch?
Well, the good news is, after what I have been told were several fits and starts, that, too, is available at Doodles.
I loved the tall stack of Johnny cakes ($5.50), made with cornmeal and paired with earthy sorghum, that lent breakfast a savory flavor with no sugary aftertaste. A daily special omelette with local eggs, sage sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes and onions ($10.75), served with wheat toast and grits, was a great way to start a Sunday.
Another perfectly nice way to enjoy fresh eggs at Doodles is with "The Cure." The eggs can be ordered any style, but in this case they were nicely "over easy." Sautéed potatoes will start to cure anything that happened the previous evening, and these are wonderful. Throw in a sage-laden vegetable sausage and a biscuit, and this should attack your hangover — or whatever — for $7.95.
Three beignets ($1.75) were smaller and a bit tougher than their New Orleans' inspiration; nevertheless, it's hard to find fault with these piping hot, powdered sugar delights that the well-mannered eat over the table or the more careless simply compensate for by wearing white.
The shrimp po' boy ($8.25), also inspired by the Big Easy, does not taste exactly like its muse either — farm-raised shrimp don't have the same salty, plump feel as their Louisiana cousins, and Doodles' mild remoulade is essentially a basic mayonnaise and mustard sauce.
Salads and their ingredients are handled with care, from the delicate cole slaw whose tender cabbage was picked at the peak of perfection to the simple green salad tossed with restraint in a creamy dressing and a fistful of fresh dill. Not gourmet, but honest, and better than most in a town where a really great salad is almost impossible to find.
But my favorite meal has been the brunch of "dirty" shrimp and grits ($11.95 with the above salad), so named for its tiny accents of country ham throughout. The shrimp are not trying to be from the Gulf Coast, the tomato sauce is as svelte as a coulis, and the colorful dabs of tomatillo and scallion "salsa" refresh the dish's flavor and appearance.
I do have a small wish list, but it's one in the spirit of the restaurant. Doodles' fabulous mimosa ($5.50) would be even better with fresh-squeezed orange juice. Another area for improvement is the cupcakes, whose centers were so moist and sticky that I feared they were undercooked — a complaint I have with most bakeries around here. Finally, take time to make the coffee properly; beans like these are too good to hurry.
I think that many people, almost on faith, stuck with Doodles' concept and intentions at the beginning. Now, however, that confidence is paying off, as attention to culinary detail is rapidly catching up with the hip and beautiful surroundings.