Baptism by Fire
After five years of wrangling the flames at Ned Ludd, chef Jason French delivers some of the year’s best meals.
Portland, Oregon 97212
EAT THIS NOW
- House pickle plate
- Salads (any and all)
- Whole roasted trout
- Oven-kissed chocolate chip cookie
An infectious blend of joy, conviction, and black comedy haunts every inch of a hidden space deep inside Portland’s most eccentric patch of food and concrete. Semi-dark light casts cinematic shadows over a wall-to-wall shrine of cooking artifacts, gnarled tree limbs, mossy branches, old botanical prints, historic Portland photos, and flowers in every stage of life. In this homesteader’s cabin gone mad, an ancient scale, a forgotten copper egg pot, and a rusted milk pail stand like proud survivors of the industrial food takeover. This is one man’s stand on self-sufficiency, an art exhibit of hand-forged humor, and a commentary on nature’s profound beauty, dead or alive. And that’s just the bathroom at Ned Ludd.
The playful depth of this unmarked eatery on NE MLK Boulevard never lets up, from the name (after the 18th-century British anti-industrial folk hero, from whom the term “Luddite” springs) to the menu quoting Wendell Berry. Greeting you at the entrance: an old wooden blasting-cap crate is stamped with a warning: “Keep Away from Fire.” It’s a sly wink to the house fetish for wood. Kindling is everywhere. Rescued sticks and stumps lounge on shelves alongside ceramic chickens and cooking implements that look like relics from Sherman’s march. Burly logs that double as décor feed a wood-burning oven, the only stove in the house.
This six-foot-deep red-brick monster once hosted pizzas in a doomed Italian-barbecue joint. Now, Ned Ludd’s staff of self-proclaimed “fire dancers and ice wizards” juggles a more challenging guest list in the 750-degree cavern: baked-to-order flatbreads; temperamental vegetables; hard-nosed meats; delicate fish; even an outsize chocolate chip cookie rising in a cast-iron skillet, its craggy, salt-crunching surface emerging one lucky degree shy of torched. Served warm with a spoon and the suggestion to douse each bite with cold milk, it’s the sum total of Ned Ludd’s reward: a sweet, demented pleasure.
Behind the mood is lanky Jason French, a one-time butcher, waiter, teacher, cheese importer, Michelin-star dreamer, alum of Paley’s Place and Clarklewis, and as the face of Ned Ludd for five years running, an inspired avatar of DIY grit and charm. With his I-did-it-my-way bluster, locavore know-how, gift of food-nerd gab, and arms inked with images of the antique cookery and hand-cranked meat grinders scattered around the dining room, French is the reigning poster boy for everything to love and parody about Portland life.
What’s been missing from the place is really good food, consistently. Before opening Ned Ludd in 2008, French had never fully faced the fickle fury of wood fire. It showed. Behind the homey ideal of “rustic cooking” lies an all-consuming, think-on-your-feet universe. No two fires are alike. The elusive taste of campfire glee comes with caveats. Wet wood: deal with it. Smoldering black hole: figure it out. Autopilot cooking is not an option. But after years of, um, misfires, French has mastered the heat in the kitchen. The once-erratic menu now burns with confidence. Dishes crackle with good char. And at age 42, the determined cook and self-styled “Goodwiller Guy” has sparked some of the year’s best meals.
The menu is an unwavering expression of the season. Dishes change not just daily but sometimes midmeal. Best advice: go with what looks interesting. The territory is offbeat yet accessible, classically rooted but punctuated with surprise. One night’s haul: a typically genteel vichyssoise soup, reborn as a peppery, sour, earthy jolt of cress, potatoes, and leeks in high-def green, followed by boisterous shards of braised lamb cloaking smoky charred peppers and irreverent splashes of fresh yogurt. It’s your Jersey uncle in the holy land. Another journey turned up a monumental whole roasted trout over exuberantly blackened onions shooting off the plate with dramatic abandon, and a daredevil makeover of pasta and peas starring the kitchen’s own pork-skin noodles (think pork-flavored Gummi Bears).
French may be the best salad man in town. I’d do voodoo for another taste of his New Zealand spinach leaves, still clinging to their vines and dancing with ruby-red strawberries, purple flowers, and soothing blobs of goat cheese, all drizzled with Saba, the grape juice of liqueurs. Pickled cherries, home-smoked duck bacon, and curious greens like purslane and chrysanthemum parade through assemblages built around contrast, discovery, and beautiful balance. Order a collection of them.
Weekend brunch remains Ned Ludd’s best-kept secret. Where else can you waltz in the door to a feast of fried duck eggs on brioche toast, smoked trout hash, and a kingly, berry-packed muffin-cum-pancake edged with fire?
Sometimes flavors flail out of control. French’s love of crazy acidity can leave you squinting harder than Clint Eastwood. The oven can still be unforgiving, sucking the juice out of meat. And be warned: the granola will give your molars a workout, and not in a good way.
But these days, the flameouts are rare. Even French acknowledges that something has changed. He envisioned this place as a refuge from an insane world, a place for discovery in a world lost in homogeny. “I’m not in this to win the James Beard Award,” he says. “In all these years, I’ve never called myself a chef.”
Don’t tell that to French’s staff, who know him by one name only: “Chef.” They drop his name in conversation the way NBA players refer to “Coach” in post-game interviews. No first or last names. Just: Chef says this, Chef says that. It’s the ultimate sign of respect—and after five years of taming the fire, a well-deserved title.