Image: Karen Brooks
Ned Ludd's salad of prosciutto, blackberries, nasturtium leaves, and sweet-sour blackberry dressing.

Ned Ludd delivered some of my favorite meals in 2012. Not the fanciest or the most food-forward, but meals that satisfied: fresh, personal, rustically rooted but punctuated with surprise. Now, in 2013, add staying power to the list.

Five years in, Jason French's house of quirk and wood-fired fanaticism keeps getting better.

Part of the upswing is fresh kitchen talent: sous chef Lucian Prellwitz, 29, came to Ned Ludd last winter after revitalizing San Francisco's popular Firefly, working the stoves at Napa's celebrated Ubuntu, and (like every cook coming to Portland), "staging at The French Laundry."

Prellwitz's eye and technical chops are immediately noticeable in food that is just a little more intricate, a little more elegant than it was last year. It's not a new direction—Prellwitz understands Ned Ludd's indie farmstead language, he just speaks it with a sexier voice. French calls him "super nerdy and cerebral...the best cook I've ever hired."

Another change: the Ned Ludd team wisely reduced dinner hours from daily to five nights a week in order to focus on quality. "It's the shrink to grow approach," says Prellwitz.

As French continues to recover from a big bike spill, Prellwitz has been running with the menu. Here are the three Ned Ludd menu moves on our radar:

1. Seasonal salads: Since last year, Ned Ludd has authored some of the best in town, with a parade of unlikely ingredients—pickled cherries, home-smoked duck bacon, fresh fruits, and curious greens like purslane and chrysanthemum. Prellwitz recently produced a real beauty, mingling wide ribbons of heavenly house prosciutto, fat blackberries, peppery nasturtium leaves, and sweet-sour blackberry dressing. If it's on the menu, grab it.

2. Seafood: Prellwitz says he has "some weird sixth sense" about seafood, his favorite food. Recently, he was feeling the clams, that's for sure. A heap of just-opened manilas arrived knee-deep in a broth of real depth, deep and porky with a bit of brine. Giant cubes of house bacon roamed throughout, and Ned Ludd's fresh-from-the-garden flower obsession danced on top. Another find: crisp-skinned king salmon, cooked to the inch of perfection in the restaurant's monster-sized red-brick oven, then sided by green olives, preserved lemons, yogurt blobs, and shaved zucchini salad. This was summer in a bite.

3. Bread board: I was never crazy about Ned Ludd's wimpy, limpy flatbread. Now, there's a new plan: a whopping four varieties of wood-fired breads (ciabatta, levain, potato, rye) strewn on a rustic wood board. On the side: kaleidoscopic pads of "flower butter" integrated with a wild chop of colorful petals. Kitchen hand Chris Wilson fell hard for bread baking two months ago and French told him "to show me what you've got." The breads aren't perfect but they're good, a delightful addition to the menu, and with real promise. "He took me by surprise," says French. "He's a bread whisperer." 

Ned Ludd
3925 NE Martin Luther King Jr Blvd
503-288-6900
Dinner: Wed-Sun, 5 till close (closed Mon-Tues)
Sunday Brunch: 9 am-2 pm