I ate many a tuna sandwich sitting at my desk in the old Portland Press Herald building at 390 Congress St.

Now here I was, in the space that the advertising and marketing departments used to occupy, staring down at a plate of tataki-style tuna sprinkled with nigella seeds. The fish had been purchased at Harbor Fish Market. It was prepared not by our former cafeteria lady, who once made giant pots of mac and cheese and fish chowder to refuel hungry reporters, but by the cooks at Union, the contemporary restaurant in the new Press Hotel.

Executive chef Joshua Berry and sous chef Matt Duley executed a splendid tasting menu for a handful of local food writers last week in the building where I spent two decades of my professional life. It was the second time in a week that I’d been in the utterly transformed newspaper building, and I still felt a bit like the person who returns to her childhood home and realizes that while its history can never be erased, it won’t ever be the same again. The new owners have done an outstanding job of preserving the spirit of the place with touches like a typewriter wall, carpeting with letters of the alphabet strewn across it and wallpaper in the hallways featuring old Press Herald headlines. But new memories are being made there now.

The memories I’ll carry away with me are of the second floor, where the newsroom used to be. That’s where we all watched with horror as the events of Sept. 11, 2001, unfolded in New York. I was on the phone interviewing the state epidemiologist when the towers fell and the city editor began shouting out assignments across the room. In 1996, we scrambled as a team to cover the big Fore River oil spill, when the tanker Julie N crashed into the Casco Bay bridge just blocks away. Occasionally, before we had better security, convicted murderers and other shady characters wandered in off the street to talk to a reporter – any reporter who would listen – about their troubles.

Journalists aren’t known for healthy diets or fat wallets. We eat pizza on election nights. During ongoing coverage of breaking news, an editor might soothe his staff with a box of glazed doughnuts strategically placed in a central spot. Before budget cuts, back when we still had company cars and a Washington correspondent who actually lived in D.C., the old Press Herald building had a little cafeteria on the fifth floor. It was subsidized by the company, so the fare was cheap. Some people hated eating there and patronized Old Port sandwich shops instead. Or, way back in the day, they walked over to Alberta’s on Pleasant Street for the serious food and eclectic atmosphere, or down Exchange Street to Hu Shang for Chinese. But others – on most days, anyway – stuck with the fifth-floor lunchroom, where the choices often felt like something your grandmother might have made you. It was comfort food for people who spent their days interviewing grieving relatives, pressing slick politicians and standing in the rain waiting for something to happen: American chop suey, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with a carton of milk and grilled cheese made on a sad little grill that took so long to melt the cheese you worried about missing deadline. On BLT days, the smell of bacon wafted up and down the crazy winding staircase and drove everyone crazy.

When the workday was over, we would wander into the Old Port for a beer. Some of us gathered regularly at Gritty’s on Thursday nights, along with other reporters from The Associated Press, radio, TV and other newspapers.


Now the cafeteria and the Gritty’s gang are both gone, and last Wednesday I found myself starting the evening with a Bulleit bourbon, blueberry and basil cocktail at Union. Listening hungrily as chef Berry described the first course, I easily forgot the hundreds of tuna sandwiches I must have eaten at my desk while waiting for a source to call back.

Scattered on top of Berry’s flash-seared tuna were a few tiny, sweet Peruvian peppers, shaped like tear drops. A sprinkling of puffed brown rice provided contrasting crunch. And on the plate was a little chili oil and Ponzu sauce, a citrus-based soy sauce. Berry explained that when the dish is served in the restaurant, it comes with a “do-it-yourself Ponzu sauce.”

“We take a lemon and char it – really char it – on the grill and then put a little bit of that sweet soy, a little bit of bonito and a little mirin on the lemon, and then you squeeze it over yourself,” he said.

The pasta course was a bowl of pappardelle inspired by Michael Strejcek, the hotel’s general manager. “He eats pappardelle and that’s all he eats,” Berry said. Apparently Strejcek has sampled every bowl of pappardelle in Portland, so the chef decided to create a Press Hotel version where the pasta is tossed with kale pesto, local ricotta and Parmesan.

“We needed some texture, so we took some Kalamata olives, dehydrated them and then crumbled them on top,” Berry said. A touch of lemon zest finishes the dish.

After the rich pasta came roasted lamb loin served with a fennel-and-orange salad, a radish for some spice and citrus vinaigrette. This time, manzanilla olives were grated on top.


The fifth course was culotte steak with oyster mushrooms, roasted potatoes and a couple of pieces of black garlic made in a rice cooker.

“The culotte is a different cut of meat that I haven’t seen in Portland yet,” Berry said. “I wanted to do something that’s not a filet or a sirloin. It rests on top of the top sirloin, and it’s got some great marbling in it. You really get that good beef flavor.”

The flavor of the beef was enhanced by a tart-sweet Bayley Hazen Blue cheese and honey agrodolce.

Dessert in the fifth floor cafeteria at 390 Congress was usually cookies or brownies or occasionally Rice Krispie treats. (Some of my colleagues begged for them like 5-year-olds.) Some days, if you were lucky, there was walnut pie straight out of the Moody’s Diner cookbook.

Times change, people move on. One thing’s for sure: I’m eating better now.

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