Ned Ludd, the mythical inspiration for the Luddites, was made famous for his opposition to the automation of industry, which threatened the livelihood of skilled artisans of the 19th century. Nothing quite so contentious comes to mind when considering the newish North Portland restaurant that shares his name, where co-owners and chefs Ben Meyer and Jason French celebrate Ned Ludd’s sentiment for low-tech methods rather than revolution—and create stellar food from humble ingredients in the process.
Even before the nondescript building comes into view, the woodsmoke aroma enveloping the area—suggesting campfire meals of yore—provides clues as to the sort of dining experience you can expect: uncomplicated (but not simplistic) dishes with the emphasis on quality of the ingredients and the deftness with which they are used. No glitzy presentation or flashy preparations here.
The interior further reinforces that sentiment, with much of the decor being functional, from the stacks of cut apple wood that fuel the brick oven where all the cooking takes place to the shelves laden with jars of pickled asparagus and red onion that season and garnish your food.
Ned Ludd’s menu, esoteric on the surface but easily decipherable, is divided into small plates, or “bits” (unintentionally ironic for the computer-savvy), and entrees, or “plats.” “Forebits” fulfill the traditional appetizer role, featuring charcuterie ($12), cheese plates ($12) and housemade pickles ($5), the latter a showcase for some seasonal delights, including salty-earthy beets, extra-tangy strawberries and turmeric-stained bread-and-butter squash. The nutty, smoky flatbread ($4) arrives with the slightest hint of char, and puffs steam when pulled apart.
For those with creative ordering skills, the salads that make up the “kaltbits”(kalt, from the German for “cold”) and the small plates of the “warmbits” are where you’ll see the most action. Fennel was featured prominently in both the spring menu and the now current summer menu, shaved into crunchy, bright-tasting salads ($6) dressed with citrus and sprinkled with a sharp jack cheese. The boquerones (fresh, marinated anchovies) on top provide a briny counterpoint, but seemed to lack the deep saltiness a traditional anchovy could have provided.
The warmbits and plats are where the alchemy of woodsmoke and fire really shine, as the cooking method is often the most prominent seasoning the food receives. Charred scallions with romesco ($7) is perhaps one of the most simple vehicles of this principle, with the blackened yet still edible tips of the allium balancing out the caramelized sweetness of the bulb with a crackly bitterness. The “elbows, peas and cheese” ($7) is a deeply satisfying bowl of comfort, with tender tubes of pasta bathing in milky, salty cheese and coated with buttery breadcrumbs. The roasted pork belly ($9) sports a thin, chewy rind, with a color and consistency not unlike a super-hard crème brûlée crust, and just as inviting. The lentils it rests in are perfect—tender, without being mushy.
Of the plats, standouts included a half game hen ($14) rubbed with berries and served over a simple green salad, each quadrant of the bird at the correct doneness, surprising in such an irregular shape and potentially temperamental cooking medium.
But then, the consistency in how well done Ned Ludd’s dishes are is perhaps one of the restaurant’s greatest appeals. In an increasingly digital world, such an analog enterprise producing such precision is inspiring. Mr. Ludd himself would be quite proud.
Order this: Anything featuring Ned Ludd’s lovely, luscious pork belly.
Best deal: Stick with the kaltbits and warmbits to build yourself a fabulous mini tasting menu for not too much cash.
I’ll pass: Desserts, while well executed, were bland and uninspiring compared with their savory counterparts.