Ned Ludd is the name of a fictional character in the Earth First movement, inspired by the Luddites, the colony of Europeans who sabotaged and vandalized technology at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. For the hip Portland restaurant of the same name, Ludd’s spirit has been transformed into a menu in which all food is only cooked by wood fire, ingredients that are exclusively local and seasonal, and the most impeccably decorated room I’ve ever eaten in.
"Rustic" is definitely the design-du-jour at most contemporary urban eateries, where the push to celebrate simple ingredients and techniques has transformed modern "fine dining." The next step is going to be restaurants without cutlery, I’m serious. Can’t you just picture left coast yuppies lining up to eat whole (confit) turkey legs and (local fingerling) potatoes out of a (fabulous) trough?
Ned Ludd has taken this aesthetic and created a room so tastefully appointed it feels part-museum and part-upscale kitchen, with antique copper pots hanging from the walls, piles of wood displaying hatchets and jars full of natural oddities everywhere.
If you don’t believe me about the attention to detail that went into this place, JUST LOOK AT THIS FUCKING BATHROOM:
After reading the praise for the restaurant online, I was actually a little bit discouraged upon reading the menu, given how modest it is. For a city as big and meaty as Portland, Ned Ludd’s menu is very light and green, which is likely a seasonal attribute. It turned out to be a blessing, as the meal we enjoyed over five courses was innovative, but focused on fresh, bright flavours that let the ingredients do all the talking, prepared simply but perfectly every time.
The cocktail list is small but right on the money for the hot, dry August night my road-tripping party visited. The Queen Bee is a fruity-but-not-too-sweet vodka and peach cocktail, while the El Guapo is a complex tequila-based drink.
Also leading off the meal was a bit of charcuterie in the form of a porchetta that just melted on the tongue as soon as you put it in your mouth. Accompanying were some house-made mustard and pickles, all of which got the taste buds really going and the table really excited for what else was in store for us. Oh and the edible flowers were just GORgeous dahling.
Next was a bruschetta of corn, grape tomatoes, basil oil and sheep’s cheese, and a salad of summer beans, pickled blueberries, sheep’s cheese and hazelnuts. These simple preparations were so bright and flavourful and surprising in their immediacy. The bruschetta was delicious (but hardly an unfamiliar flavour profile), however the bean salad was a revelation. The best contemporary cooking seems to have an incredible knack for pairing basic ingredients that may seem odd or surprising, but when eaten together are so perfectly complimented that you wonder why the combo isn’t as common as apple pie and ice cream. That salad was the taste of summer, and each of the four primary ingredients was there for a reason.
This is a whole roasted trout with a simple cucumber salad and charred scallions. You know how when your family just murders a white fish at gatherings by stuffing it with lemon and dill and then baking the shit out of it? It’s a flavour profile I’ve come to be very wary of, and yet here was a fish prepared exactly in that manner (save for the over-cooking, of course) and it was so delicious. Of course the wood fire is a major asset: from the crispy skin to the smoke in the meat to the char on the garnish, it really transforms the protein in a way that home ovens don’t. Most importantly though, it was seasoned and cooked perfectly, so while the instinct may be slather a white fish in some goopy sauce when you get boring plate of it at home, here the fish itself was celebrated and allowed to shine as it should. The lemon and dill were the noble support they should be. We ate everything but the face.
Our final savoury course was the big meaty finisher we were all waiting for. When this plate of lamb over eggplant puree with olives hit the table, I was a little suspect despite how amazing the rest of the meal had been: the meat was brown and looked cooked-through, as opposed to the gloriously pink and juicy centre I was expecting. Looks can be deceiving though, and this was the bite of the night. The lamb was incredibly moist and tender, slow cooked near glowing embers, and so full of that distinctly luxurious flavour that makes it the greatest of all dead animals. The crispy outer crust on the meat in particular made my eyes roll back into my head, and the combination of the olives and the eggplant provided just the right tart and sour notes to balance the rich meat.
And finally, dessert, which isn’t a course I usually crave but in this case seemed appropriate to cap off such a beautiful meal. What a genius stroke it was: the poached peach with creamy cheese and mint was delicious, but the summer berry panna cotta was among the more phenomenal desserts I’ve ever had. I’m a HUGE sucker for custards, and this one - like everything else about the meal - was all about simple execution with huge bold flavours that absolutely knocked us out.
I don’t think any Luddite ever ate this well. The dream of the 1890’s is truly alive in Portland.