I seem to eat at less expensive restaurants for a while and then switch to more expensive ones for a stretch and go back and forth like that over the course of time. I suppose it has something to do with how wealthy I’m feeling when I’m choosing where to go, but a lot of it just depends on what I want to eat. Lately though, it’s undoubtedly been the lower cost locations I’ve been frequenting as we finish our new kitchen to be able to create our own Portlandeater-inspired creations at home. In addition, with the holidays coming up, saving a little cash on my meals out certainly doesn’t hurt. That said, it was proposed that we meet some friends at Union for a nicer – and albeit pricier – meal, and I was up for it.
The restaurant in Portland’s Press Hotel, Union offers new American dishes which are relatively common in Portland. They focus on local ingredients, interesting preparations, and thoughtful presentations and have a cool open kitchen that’s fun to watch. I hadn’t been in a long time – since shortly after they opened – forgetting even what I had eaten there, but was excited to go again and see if they continued to offer what I felt was a top notch experience. I generally believe Portland’s restaurants of the same theme are pretty solid, but in other areas, I have seen these types of eateries start strong and let quality slip over time.
Due to Mrs. Portlandeater’s keen eyes – the same ones with which she spotted me back in the day – we found a perfect parking space across the street from the restaurant. We ran in to escape the cold, then alerted the staff to our arrival and were taken to a table suitable for the four of us. We all sat and were presented menus, chose flat water over sparkling, and checked the drink lists for what it was we were having that evening.
A cocktail was my fancy and I saw quite a few that could earn my vote. In the end, I decided on the Katahdin – walnut bourbon, blended scotch, Amaro Averna, fig, aromatic bitters. With a nice, Maine-inspired name and a blend of liquor that could only be thought of as “potent”, I felt it a good selection. My wife ordered The Riot – dark rum, Aperol, lemon, blueberry shrub, soda – and our friends both chose Knife Tricks – local vodka, absinthe, elder flower liqueur, lemon, lime, demerara – which was my second choice and possibly my favorite drink name of the week.
Our liquid starters were a little slow to arrive, but we did get some bread with local butter on which to nibble and also placed our app orders. Nibble we did, until the drinks finally showed up. They all looked tasty and mine showed some muscle. I knew the dark drink would be strong and readied myself for an initial taste. It was a whiskey waterfall of superb flavor. I got the fig sweetness and was even able to pick out the bitters. It was as hefty as I expected. The entire table gave praise for their libations and we were able to put in the main courses shortly after.
Two appetizers were revealed to us without much delay. We had the Crispy Brussels Sprouts – walnut aioli, charred lemon, extra virgin olive oil – and they the House Made Venison Sausage – violet mustard, marinated lentils, preserved orange, green fennel. Our sprouts came with the suggestion that we squeeze the charred lemon on top which I did immediately. Then, not wasting any time, I dug in, picking one that looked just right. Holy moly, what incredible aioli! The crispness, sour, and amazing creamy aioli made a combination rarely seen in veggiedom. These were some of the best Brussels sprouts I’d ever had – just absolutely excellent and the crunch of the walnuts I found later made them even better. I tried a bite of the venison sausage and it was decent, but I generally find venison a little too gamey for my tastes as was the case that night.
We all happily ate our food, finishing the goodness that was in our bowls. Before too long, the rest of our orders were in front of us. I had Seared Scallops – local clams, braised leek, orecchiette, smoke house ham. She had Pan Roast Salmon – local beets, grain mustard crema, freshly rasped horseradish, pumpernickel. Our friends went for the same – he with the salmon and she with the scallops. With smiles and forks ready to go, we all tried our meals.
Up first for me was one of my half dozen half-scallops. It was great with the ever-important perfect sear. But what put this one a head above some of my past seared scallops was the broth in the bottom of the plate. This wasn’t a soup, but the broth, presumably from the clams in the dish, was a magnificent salty sea stock and played up the scallop incredibly well. It was no surprise when I went for a clam that I had a similar reaction – they were delightful. The leeks sat on the bottom of the plate so they were drowned in greatness. The ham added a little extra salt and meatiness. If I had one complaint about the dish, it was the pasta. I understood that that wasn’t the central ingredient, but less than a dozen of the ear-shaped pieces graced the plate and they went so well with the broth that I was just hoping for more of them to mix in there. Was my complaint valid? I suppose not, but one can dream of more orecchiette.
I’m not a big fan of salmon, but the two salmon consumers at the table gave rave reviews to their meal and everyone cleared their plates of most everything. I passed on eating the clam shells, but made all else disappear. We were hoping for a little dessert after we finished with audible cries for cheesecake or peanut butter. I would have gladly taken either, but it was not to be as the only cheese available was a full cheese plate and I didn’t have the constitution for that. There was no peanut butter to be found either, so even though some were interested in the Sweet Potato Ice Cream on the menu, we decided to make our way out.
In the end, our meal came to about $220 after tax and tip which included a second round of drinks for our friends. I was exceptionally happy with everything. It was truly excellent, especially considering that the foods I had were ones that I frequently order elsewhere and they were on par with some of the best in recent memory. Union still has it. They don’t seem to be missing a beat and that consistency is to be praised. I’m confident everything there is worth trying and next time I’ll certainly be checking out something different. If you want first-rate food in a great atmosphere, you need to go. Put Union on your list now and thank me later.
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