In 1984, my sister moved to Chicago and started her own veterinary practice. At the time I was 16, petulant and self-absorbed. I didn’t think too much of her going.
As the years passed, her longing for home, and my longing for her, set in. I did what I could to really tighten the screws and lure her back. I shipped her big care packages of shrimp and babbled endlessly about music festivals, crawfish bread and comfortable winter temperatures.
After years of waiting, Beth and her husband, Chuck, recently moved home to a cheerful cottage on Octavia Street, not two blocks from my own home.
Beth’s eldest daughter, Renee, helped them with the move. I was selfishly cheered by her misery as her departure for the Midwest drew closer, but she didn’t get away before I had made her the subject of my newest campaign.
Renee was born when I was 17 and by the time she was 5, my late father and I were collecting her at the airport for month-long visits. I spent the year cramming all of my work assignments into the months before and after her time here so I could drag her around to restaurants, teach her to cook and immerse her in our culture lest she grow up identifying too closely with Chicago.
My partner in the plan – my husband, Andrew – to lure Renee, now 30, into relocating to New Orleans, pulled out his rig and assembled an early season crawfish boil to greet her upon arrival. I wove a list of Renee’s favorite childhood restaurants and newer ones certain to enchant.
Like me, Renee was a stalwart Frankie & Johnny’s regular back in the dark days when we had to ignore the occasional vermin that scampered across the worn floor in the back dining room. She was thrilled to discover the newly uplifted F&J’s. Windows uncovered by the removal of faux wood paneling shed light on the oysters before her – a dozen from the new-to-her raw bar and another dozen char-broiled – that joined the menu after the renovation.
It was a poor boy loaded with plump, crisp oysters and zesty bleu cheese for Renee and fried chicken and waffles for me at MoPho, chef Michael Gulotta’s hugely inventive Mekong-meets-the-Mississippi eatery that has no peer in Chicago.
We discovered new favorites at Brown Butter. The poutine sandwich marries garlic fries, short rib debris gravy, horseradish-mayo and cheddar curds on toasted brioche, and the oyster and tomato salad is bright and lively with charred onions, smoked corn buttermilk dressing and arugula.
The weather was nice and the outdoors beckoned (“Bet you can’t eat outside in January in Chicago!”). We crowded our small bistro table on the shaded porch at Tartine with excellent grilled Gruyere cheese sandwiches on house-made sourdough bread, a grilled shrimp salad served with a kaleidoscope of fresh vegetables and pistou vinaigrette, an open-faced baguette sandwich – this one layered with slices of country pâté studded with buttery pistachios, onion marmalade and cornichons. Whatever chill was in the air was chased away with steaming bowls of hot tomato soup.
I packed her off to the airport with both apple and goat cheese and boudin-stuffed King Cakes from Cake Cafe in Bywater.
Upon her arrival back in Chicago, Renee called. “Matthew (her partner of five years) and I went out to dinner last night. We looked at one another and said ‘Now what?’ Matthew’s family is gone from Chicago. My mom’s left Chicago. We’re thinking it might be time to move to New Orleans. Family’s a pain in the ass but oysters are really hard to find here, crawfish are nonexistent, and even the grilled cheese sandwiches don’t seem as good.”
Dis &Dem, a funky Mid-City burger joint, will soon be expanding to the French Quarter. Personal favorites are the veggie poboy for $7 and eggs Hussard (plenty enough for two) for $12.
Brown Butter 231 N. Carrollton Ave, Suite C, 609-3871, BrownButterRestaurant.com
Dis & Dem 2540 Banks St., 817 St. Louis St.; 909-0458; DisAndDem.com
Frankie & Johnny’s 321 Arabella St., 243-1234
MoPho 514, City Park Ave., 482-6845, MoPhoMidCity.com
Tartine 7117 Perrier St., 866-4860, TartineNewOrleans.com
Cake Cafe, 2440 Chartres St., 943-0010, NolaCakes.com