Fifty Dollar Dinner

photo/Hannah Joyce McCain
photo/Hannah Joyce McCain

390 Congress St., Portland

Union, the restaurant inside the still relatively new Press Hotel in downtown Portland, is a svelte, attractive place. It was about half-full on a Tuesday evening last month. Most of the patrons appeared to be on the far side of 50, and I imagined them discussing the things rich people talk about: tennis lessons, mutual funds, private-school tuition.

It’s that sort of restaurant. Not our kind of restaurant.

My husband and I were red-nosed from the cold, slush clinging to our boots. He had 20 bucks in his wallet. I had no cash, just my credit card, already stretched a bit thin for my comfort. The hostess didn’t seem to mind that we were way too young and way too poor to be there, though. She greeted us enthusiastically and peppered us with questions: Is it still snowing out? Had we been here before?

She led us to a modest little table of bright, polished wood, near the coat rack. Someone arrived to fill our water glasses while we stared at a stack of menus: cocktails, wine, dinner. Feeling equally intimidated and emboldened by the upper-class atmosphere, we opened our cocktail menus first. Our server approved of our selections — “I’m a dark-liquor girl myself,” she said.

Our drinks arrived and, as promised, they were delicious. In the Cardamaro Manhattan ($14), rye whiskey and the traditional vermouth are complemented by the eponymous, wine-based Italian herbal liqueur. The addition works well, suffusing the drink with pleasant notes of dark fruit. The Scottish Sailor ($13) was sweet, with a touch of citrus bitterness and a heavy layer of peaty Scotch.

Had we opted for cans of Baxter or bottles of Sam Adams Light ($6), we would have had more money left to play with. But going down that road only leads to the conclusion that we should have stayed home and eaten rice and beans, then gone to bed early to be ready for another workday, happy that, at $14 an hour, we’re making above minimum wage. Instead, we were at Union, so we bought fancy cocktails and pretended to belong. The cost of the drinks left us with $23 to spend on the rest of the meal.

Our server suggested the duck breast with truffle honey ($28). We nodded agreeably, knowing that dish alone would put us over-budget. “I’ll give you a bit more time to look over the menu,” she said, then added: “Would you care for some bread?” My husband glanced at me. I raised an eyebrow. He asked a hard question: “Is it — free?”

Yes, yes, of course it’s free, she effusively assured us — we could have as much as we wanted. She is young and poor, like us, we thought. She brought us lots of bread, thick, cool slices with a perfectly round coin of salted butter on the side. We agreed it would have been tastier fresh from the oven, but then wondered, Are we even allowed to think that? Beggars can’t be choosers.

For dinner, we ordered an appetizer and a soup. It was all we could afford. We figured we’d have beans and rice later while self-flagellating in penance for every misspent dime that should have gone into paying our health-insurance premiums. Our server told us that she, too, sometimes isn’t that hungry (which rhymes with “sometimes doesn’t have any money”). She made us feel like we deserved to be there, even if we couldn’t afford the duck breast with truffle honey.

The white bean soup ($10) was fine. Based on the menu’s description, I’d envisioned a hearty dish, but it was a thin purée, drizzled with black garlic oil and peppered with very hard, presumably pickled, lentils. The duck pâté ($14), topped with buttons of sticky marmalade and crisp frills of frisée, was a different story: opulent and rich. Two pieces of warm, ultra-crisp, deep-fried brioche compound the decadence.

We stopped there, of course. The check came: we’d gone a buck over budget, $51 before tax and tip. We bundled up in our coats and headed back into the wintery night. It was time to go home and eat dinner.

— Hannah Joyce McCain

Union serves dinner Sun.-Thurs. from 5 p.m.-9 p.m., Fri. and Sat. from 5 p.m.-10 p.m.