Ned Ludd, who famously destroyed two power looms in rejection of the new technologies of his day, may seem like an odd name for a restaurant, but once you visit, you’ll get it. There are no fancy ovens or tools of molecular gastronomy. Ned Ludd is as down-to-earth as you can get.
“Up until two years ago we had a two-burner hot plate and the oven,” owner Jason French says quite matter-of-factly.
Staking a Claim With Ned Ludd’s
It may be a surprise to many, but the magic workers at Ned Ludd cast their culinary spells almost entirely in a large wood-fired oven French inherited when he took over the lease during what may have been one of the worst times to open a new business: 2008.
“Maybe not the best time to take a gamble, but I got in for such a small amount of money that I couldn’t pass it up,” French explains.
Originally from the east coast, French has lived nearly everywhere, from a youth spent in Connecticut to an adulthood in Maine, Colorado and now Oregon. Having worked within the food industry all his life, and knowing he wanted to own his own restaurant when he was 17, French came to Oregon with a vision.
“I moved here following a girl,” he says with a laugh,” but in reality Oregon had been in my sphere for a while. I wanted a little bit of mountain, a little bit of coast and a little bit of valley. I got here and pinched myself a bit.”
Part of Oregon’s draw rested on the fact that not only do we have some of the best scenery, but we also have some of the best food. “I believe that Oregon produces some of the best tasting, highest quality product on the planet,” French extolls. “I don’t think there are many places that can touch the benefits of the climate here.
Indeed, French goes out of his way to ensure Ned Ludd is utilizing the best in regional product, whether it be lamb from the valley or beef from eastern Oregon. Ned Ludd also cultivates special relationships with farms and producers around the region, leading a high level of seasonality in the dishes they come up with.
“You’ll get so much of one thing in one year and then the next year you might not get any of it,” French says. “You really have to be flexible.”
The World of Wood-Fired At Ned Ludd’s
Flexibility was something French had to learn early on. When he first took over the space, he was essentially opening a restaurant that did not have a traditional kitchen. All he had to work with were the two aforementioned hot plate burners and the giant wood-fired oven.
“In the beginning it was very hard and really quite challenging,” French admits. “Initially, I felt creatively disinclined because I didn’t have a voice and didn’t know what my food would be with this oven.”
Although French has been steeped in food for decades, with plenty of impressive culinary cred to his name, the wood fired oven represented a huge departure from what he had been doing. And yet, some of his seeming failures would wind up becoming some of his most sought-after dishes.
Early on, French accidently charred a bowl of Brussel sprouts. He tossed them with olive oil, sea salt, lemon juice and chili flakes and sent them out, praying the customer wouldn’t complain. “I wasn’t feeling very good about it, but they ordered more!” French exclaims.
He made them “correctly” the second time and the customers sent them back, requesting they be charred like before. So he burned them again and the customers loved them, thus Ned Ludd’s charred Brussel sprouts were born. “They’re ubiquitous now because everybody’s burning the shit out of everything cause it’s cool,” French says with a sardonic smile.
Although burning everything may be in fashion now, Ned Ludd has fine-tuned their technique, lending to deliciously charred dishes that are far from burned and totally blackened. It’s a technique only rivaled by an old-fashioned, welcoming interior. “People say it’s sort of resembles a British farmhouse,” French says.
With several picnic-style tables outside and a full bar inside, there’s no shortage of restaurant real estate for hungry customers. Once you’ve entered and found the spot that’s perfect for you, start your evening with a creative libation.
Magic Wands Are Made of Wood
The Folklore transports you right into that British farmhouse. You can almost smell the countryside as you sip on DL Franklin vodka shaken up with Clear Creek Douglas Fir brandy and then topped with egg whites and a single sage leaf. It’s wicked strong, but certainly doesn’t taste so. This one’s a creeper, so be careful.
The single sage leaf is harvested from a garden behind the restaurant run by the Portland Urban Garden Collective. “We take certain liberties,” French says with a wink.
As you sip on your delectable beverage, start out the evening with a dill pickled beet salad. Snaking its way beautifully across the plate, the fresh beets are accompanied by cucumber, shaved fennel, smoked trout and house-made croutons. A pool of crème fraiche provides the perfect foundation for the assortment of flavors and textures.
With your salad down, move on to the seared Albacore with olive oil, spring greens, confit potatoes, fennel, Spanish white anchovy, and castelvetrano olives. The albacore is cooked to near-perfection. Nice and raw in the center, it’s succulent and flavorful, a seafood dish that’s full of moxie.
Although you may consider yourself ready to be rolled out at this point, one can’t stop by Ned Ludd without dipping their fork and knife into what’s became French’s signature dish, the wood-fired whole trout with seasonal greens. The trout arrives deboned, with the head and skin still on. The crunch of the crispy skin compliments the moist perfection of the trout, itself stuffed with thick slices of lemon and fennel before it’s put to the fire, then topped with a seasonal greens salad.
One of the reasons why Ned Ludd’s wood-fired dishes burst with hidden flavors is because of the type of wood they use in the oven. “Right now we get a mix of oak, alder and fruit woods. We may get Green Cherry wood from one of our orchards in the Hood River area,” French explains.
It is their commitment to local, sustainable and seasonal that sets Ned Ludd and their wood-fired creations apart. “I love the physical world we live in, and if we can translate that into an hour-and-a-half or two-hour dinner, it’s magic,” French concludes.
For a taste of the wood-fired magic Ned Ludd is conjuring, stop by and pay them a visit at 3925 NE Martin Luther King Boulevard in Portland, Oregon. They are open daily from 5:00pm to 10:00pm. For menu information, visit their website at www.nedluddpdx.com or give them a call at 503.288.6900.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is a published author, poet and longtime journalist who has been covering politics, entertainment, culture and travel for over twelve years. He currently works from his home in the Pacific Northwest profiling restaurants, reviewing local plays and reporting on regional, national and international travel.