Saturday, September 3, 2011
Ned Ludd - Portland, Oregon
There are times when you are just utterly charmed by a restaurant. It may not be the most breathtaking food, it may not be the most ostentatious decoration, it may not be the most obsequious service, but sometimes a place captures a bit of magic that seems to make every piece of a meal fit together perfectly. That was our experience with Ned Ludd.
Ned Ludd the man was a late 18th century weaver who, in a fit of unexplained rage, destroyed two knitting machines. Decades later, this little incident acquired something of a mystical aura as he became the mascot to the Luddites, a group of rebellious textile workers who vainly opposed the developments of the Industrial Revolution, opposition that was often expressed by breaking the machines that were taking away their jobs.
Ned Ludd the restaurant is not quite so revolutionary, but the name is definitely a signal. The food here is very down to earth, the preparation methods simple, primarily using a wood-burning oven that was left behind by an earlier tenant. The decorations are similarly rustic: weathered wood furnishings and surfaces and rough exposed beams are softened up by decorative twisting vines and branches, old-timey cut-glass light fixtures and candle-holders. It felt to me like a farmhouse from a Peter Greenaway film. Outside, bins of fruitwood (the fuel for that oven) form a perimeter around a few park benches that serve as an outdoor seating area.
The menu is divided into "forebits," "kaltbits," "warmbits" and "plats," indicating starters, salads, slightly more substantial cooked dishes, and heartier entrées. We cobbled together an order for the table that included something from each, focusing primarily on an abundance of tempting-sounding vegetable based dishes.
First to hit the table were these warm pita-like flatbreads, hot from the oven, toasty and browned on the edges, and given a generous bath of good olive oil. The distinctly assertive note of caraway seed was an unexpected and welcome jolt of flavor.
I'm not usually one to get excited over salads, but the salads at Ned Ludd were gorgeous. Tender soft lettuces were paired here with translucent pink slices of duck bacon, lightly pickled cherries, and meaty walnuts, dressed in a simple but pitch-perfect vinaigrette. Hearty flavors, delicate textures, and great balance to the components.
While the duck salad was more autumnal in spirit, this salad felt like the peak of summer. Blanched green beans and wax beans lay beneath a variety of juicy cherry tomatoes and slices of their larger cousins, perky mache, intensely briney olives and roughly chopped mint scattered here and there for contrast, all dressed with both a bright green herb vinaigrette and tangy yogurt.
The charcuterie was also excellent: a nice broad slice of coppa di testa made with larger chunks of gelatin-bound various pig head bits suffused with soft herbs; liverwurst, still pink in the center, creamy and rich; ribbons of delicate rosy ham; lamb rillettes, served warm and rich as butter. The accompaniments held up their end of the bargain too: nice dense seeded bread, plump pickled mushrooms, and shockingly good pickled celery that actually made the vegetable worth eating on its own.
The one "plat" we got was a roasted pastured hen served atop a salad of lettuces and slivered radishes in a buttermilk dressing. It was a good bird but just didn't excite like the other dishes we tried.
Speaking of excitement: Ned Ludd does a great little trick on their menu. Tell me which of these you'd be more likely to order:
See? You read that exclamation point, you can't help but say it in your head with the right inflection, and suddenly you're thinking: "Chard pie! How can I pass that up?" You shouldn't. It was delicious, a fist-sized tart of dense dark green chopped chard encased in a tender, flaky crust, with a little pitcher of a creamy sauce spiked with some mustard to round things out.
If you can't get excited over chard, you probably won't get excited over carrots either, but this was one of my favorite dishes of the trip. A variety of different-hued carrots - orange, golden, garnet-red - were roasted in the wood-burning oven till tender but not limp. The carrots weren't woody, but still had a firm, almost meaty texture to them, reinforced by the hint of woodsmoke. A dollop of yogurt added both a richness and a tangy contrast, further brightened by wide strips of fresh mint. This was nothing complicated, nothing fancy, but it was perfect.
The menu did another effective sales job when it dubbed these potatoes "newly dug spuds." The fresh young potatoes, cut into large chunks and roasted, were crispy on the edges and still fluffy and light inside, reminiscent of the texture of good patatas bravas. A thick garlic aioli, generously applied, seconded that notion. Another winner was the "mac 'n' mornay." There's no shame in a good mac and cheese, and this was a good one, the creamy, cheesy sauce with a scatter of bread crumbs on top burnished from the heat of that wood-burning oven.
There is no place to hide when you do food that is this straightforward. The ingredients must be at their peak, the execution must be tight, the flavors must be focused and balanced. Ned Ludd got it right on all fronts.
The wine list is short but thoughtfully chosen, and the Evening Land Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir was silky and elegant, with bright fruit anchored by a streak of minerality. I was just as happy with the after-dinner drink options, which included the Charleston Sercial Special Reserve Madeira from Rare Wine Company's "Historic Series" (new small batch productions of Madeiras that attempt to duplicate the characteristics of older vintage Madeiras).
We closed out our meal with s'mores fashioned with chocolate from local Portland legend Xocolatl de David. These were some high class s'mores, but there's still nothing that compares to any DIY version made with a stick and a campfire. Maybe I'm a bit of a Luddite that way myself.
3925 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Portland, OR