By throwing out the rule book, a top-notch team continues to innovate, evolve, and excite.
Few things make me hungrier than Joshua Berry’s social media feed. Every day Union’s executive chef posts an astonishing array of dishes to Facebook and Instagram. He says he does it just so he has a record of what he’s cooked, but each photo is a delicious invitation to explore the restaurant. There might be a shot of local pork meatballs with ricotta gnocchi, shrimp, and grits with butter-braised oyster mushrooms, or an artfully composed salad with crumbled citrus. Sometimes Berry highlights pastry chef Dave Robinson’s work—cinnamon buns, a crusty loaf of bread, or perhaps caramelized peaches. Each dish is a work of art, and every time I see the photos, I have the urge to return to Union as soon as possible.
In the two and a half years since Union’s debut, Berry has become more relaxed, having honed the restaurant’s identity as the place where creativity gets equal billing with the finest seasonal and local ingredients. “When we first opened, we were a little safe,” Berry says. But just a few months in, he and executive sous chef Matt Duley sat down for a strategy session. Determined not to be labeled simply a hotel restaurant, “we ripped up the manual and started doing whatever we wanted,” he says. “The defining moment came when we decided not to do remakes of classics.” Instead, the chefs made the decision “to turn flavors on their heads.” They add unexpected elements, constantly tweaking a dish with ingredients that completely change its profile. Consider the roast pork tenderloin, not with apples, but with caramelized quince. Or poached hake, napped with lettuce cream and the surprise of caraway seeds. “After our conversation, we picked some dishes as signatures to tell the story of who we are,” says Berry.
The Casco Bay cod with clams is one such offering, combining fresh, local seafood with bok choy in a light and luscious soy-brown butter sauce. It’s a fairly simple dish, but the addition of morsels of Chinese sausage elevates it. This dish, and a few other all-time greatest hits, such as the fork-tender pot roast with truffle shavings, are worked into every new iteration of the menu. “In the past two and a half years, we’ve had about 20 menus,” Berry says. Their strategy has been successful, earning Union a stellar reputation in a city full of excellent restaurants. “We have a sophisticated clientele, who know what they like,” says the chef. “We try to do an ‘aha’ moment for every diner. We’re not a special occasion restaurant, but I try to make every meal special. I’ll bend over backwards for a guest.” Berry prides himself on the relationships he’s built not just with guests, but with other Portland chefs. “We’re all friends,” he says, “and we send diners to each other’s restaurants. This community is so supportive.”
Berry is very much the public face of Union. You might see him, along with Duley, at the market in Monument Square, chatting up farmers. Or at any number of culinary events benefiting local causes, from Full Plates Full Potential, to the March of Dimes, to Southern Maine Community College, where he serves on the advisory board. Berry’s good-natured, hospitable demeanor is a huge part of the way Union has evolved, but he’ll be the first to credit his team with the successes. Duley is a quiet force, whose efforts and talent are essential to Union’s story. “Matt is the real boss,” says Berry. “He’s everything I’m not, strict and structured. You have to look at your own deficiencies and hire for that. We’ve been a team since day one.”
In the two and a half years since it opened, Union and the Press Hotel have become something of a “third place.” The expression refers to a social space beyond home and work, where people gather for other reasons, finding community. The lobby is used as a meeting place, its fireplace creating a warm place to wait for friends. In the corner, the Inkwell Bar hosts guests all day, starting with French press coffee and pastries in the morning, and ending with cocktails and snacks from 4 p.m. until midnight. In between, those in search of a quiet, pleasant place to set up a laptop find themselves drawn to this sunny spot. From early morning business breakfast meetings to after-the-show drinks or a late-night bite, Union is always ready and accommodating. “We’re the L.L.Bean of restaurants,” says Berry. “We never close.”
The future looks very bright for Berry and his team. They’re part of the newly established Fathom Companies, a hospitality management company formed by Jim Brady, the developer and co-owner of the hotel. Fathom is dedicated to providing exceptional experiences, here and in future ventures. “I’ve achieved everything I want to achieve here,” Berry says. “Now that I’ve buckled my seat belt in with Jim Brady, I have to keep it up. When I look back on what we’ve accomplished since opening, I wouldn’t change a thing.”