Food from the Hearth 

Culinary Luddites in Portland's Wood-Fired World

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THE DINING ROOM looks like a cross between a hunting shack and a woodshed, lit anachronistically by the soft glow of electric chandeliers. There are heavy drapes, shelves made of unfinished boards, grapevines wound around support beams, and ferns on the tables. A forest-dwelling hermit distrustful of modern conveniences would be comfortable here. Not just because the food is cooked with technology no more profound than heat from a huge brick hearth, but also because the restaurant bears the name of the anti-industrial folk hero Ned Ludd. It was his battle cry, "Death to machines!" that became the philosophy of the Luddite movement.

It's unlikely the staff at the eponymous Northeast Portland eatery holds such strict beliefs (the check isn't carved into a shingle), but they've set themselves an interesting challenge. My server assured me that aside from the wood oven the only other cooking implement is a hot plate used for boiling water.

After eating at Ned Ludd, it's clear to me that cooking under the fickle influence of a wood fire leads to certain limitations. There's the question of variety: The menu offers plenty of slow-cooked options. There's also the question of finesse. Take for instance the tasty and rich shepherd's pie. The stew-like mixture of late winter root veggies and beef, topped with mashed potatoes, was well executed—the vegetables cooked until just tender, allowing parsnip, fennel, and carrot to remain firm, contrasting the tender meat. But it's traditional for shepherd's pie to be browned, and here the potatoes lack the light crust that adds both color and flavor. I suspect if it had been left in the oven to brown, the dish would have turned to mush.

Texture was a problem with the substantial stuffed pork shoulder on pork belly hash. The flavor was very good, even excellent, but the shoulder was too tough and the hash too mushy, creating a very odd (if flavorful) combination in the mouth. My guess? A problem with divergent cooking times between the dishes' components.

Still, despite glitches there is evident skill and creativity on the menu. The saucer-sized flatbread, rolled by hand, presented expansive, lingering flavor from cumin and coriander seeds. The inside was steamy and warm, while the outside was nicely toasted—like you'd expect from the hearth.

I'm often compelled to order what sounds like the least appealing dish on a menu. Here it was braised celery with capers, Dijon, jack cheese, and hard-boiled egg. It took about three bites before it hit me: I was eating what was essentially an inside-out egg salad. Unlike the often-sloppy sandwich filling, the flavor here was frontloaded with mellow celery tones, followed by the vinegar hits from the capers. Paired with Dijon and a slice of the hard-boiled egg, the effect was astounding.

There is potential at Ned Ludd. Just three months after opening, I assume they're still learning the quirks of their oven, slowly fine-tuning and dialing in their technique. I suspect that as time goes on, the food will continue to improve.

That being said, there is little else at Ned Ludd that needs improving. The staff seems happy and genuinely excited about the simple dishes they deliver to the table. It's infectious. I for one can't wait to see how these culinary Luddites develop their menu and technique in years to come.

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