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Restaurants that moved me

Moving can be one of the most exhausting, disruptive, stressful and emotional life experiences. But through it all you gotta eat.

I recently packed up the house my kids grew up in to move from New York to Chicago. Throughout the months of de-cluttering, tossing, downsizing and living in a sea of cartons, restaurants came to my rescue many times. They fed me, comforted me, evoked happy memories, provided a place to celebrate with friends I was leaving behind, added adventure to my road trip and welcomed me to my new city. These are a few highlights of my move, nourished by some very special restaurants.

Hometown faves. In the midst of a move, takeout is a savior. In my suburb north of New York City, I turned to some reliable favorites and they didn’t disappoint. Great roast chicken from Ruffled Feathers, authentic Thai from Little Thai Kitchen, a crisp, coal-fired white clam pizza from Frank Pepe’s and sushi and udon soup from Kirari. I’ll really miss newcomer Café Salzburg—homemade soups, excellent salads by the pound featuring roasted vegetables, Asian flavors and quinoa (sophisticated stuff for the burbs!) and the most awesome chocolate chip oatmeal cookies with cranberries. Shared with friends who helped me pack, the Café Salzburg lunch made us all feel lucky to be together.

Lunch with the old RB gang. Mike Malone, a former writer/editor at Restaurant Business, organized a good-bye lunch with some of our colleagues from the past. It was so heartwarming to gather around the table at Cinema Brasserie with these friends and co-workers. We all spent so much time together a few years back, but we hadn’t gotten together in a long time. The restaurant was very accommodating, giving us a private area and letting us stay way too long. The food was good too…lots of variety and definitely several notches above typical midtown lunch spots.

Last visit to Chinatown. Shanghai-style soup dumplings are one of my all-time favorite foods so when friends asked me where I wanted to go for a farewell meal, I immediately zeroed in on Joe’s Ginger. The dumplings there are savory, comforting and fun to eat all at once. We ordered the ones filled with a subtly spiced pork-crab mixture; you eat them off a deep, ceramic spoon and the soup inside the dumpling squirts all over and fills your mouth with deliciousness.

First visit to a NYC icon. I’ve enjoyed terrific meals and signature hospitality at several of Danny Meyer’s restaurants, but never been to Union Square Café for dinner. Three of my best friends—all professional “foodies”—invited me to choose a place for yet another good-bye celebration, and I opted for this classic. We sat at a cozy table for four and the friendly sommelier helped us choose a nice bottle of white wine that was moderately priced. We shared everything and the food was perfect for the occasion—recognizable, well prepared and very enjoyable; obviously touched by a talented chef but not too edgy and precious. The Salt-Baked Sunchokes with Lemon Aioli were a standout, as was the pasta dish, Mezzi Paccheri with Brussels sprouts, guanciale and sage. We asked for more Brussels sprouts and the kitchen sent out a full ramekin. We licked both plates clean! We also had a dish of Anson Mills Polenta with Gorgonzola and Walnuts—extremely rich but very satisfying. All good choices to share with good friends.

Soup. I turned to soup every time I needed an emotional boost and something warm to ease my hunger and make me happy. Panera Bread came through on several occasions, with their Creamy Tomato Soup, Broccoli Cheddar Soup and Country Style Mushroom and Truffle Soup. The Carrot and Ginger Soup with crème fraiche at Chat American Grill in Scarsdale also did the trick. You can see where I’m going with this…I needed spoonfuls of comforting creaminess, not healthy vegetable broths filled with beans.

On the road. OK, I had a few more good-bye meals (how can I forget breakfast at Parkway Coffee Shop where I had the amazing California Omelet for the last time!) but it was finally time to pack the car and head west. My son Josh offered to drive out to Chicago with me (thoughts of annoying mom Barbra Streisand and son Seth Rogen in last year’s Guilt Trip movie filled my head), but we turned out to be very compatible road trip buddies. Josh likes to stop and snack a lot and he’s into the food scene, so we shared some memorable eats. Two notables:

Primante's sandwichJosh had heard about Primante’s, a famous Pittsburgh pub, on one of the TV food shows, so as we traveled on Route 80 through Pennsylvania, we Googled Primante’s and found one on a convenient exit. The specialty there is a meat sandwich with french fries and cole slaw piled between the bread. We ordered the cheesesteak variation and it was surprisingly good. I even asked for a second order of fries—they were crisp, hot and hit the spot.

We stopped in Cleveland for dinner and I wanted to revisit Crop Bistro & Bar, a farm-to-table restaurant run by chef-owner Steve Schimoler. It’s a warm, inviting and bustling place, and even though we looked grubby and it was a busy Saturday night, the host was very gracious and accommodating. We sat at a hightop in the bar area and I ordered a Dark and Stormy, my new go-to cocktail, and Josh had a local seasonal beer. The Crispy Pork Belly served on griddle corn cakes with roasted poblano relish and ancho aioli was truly yummy and went very well with our drinks. By now, I was dying for a salad (too much junk food in the car) and the Shaved Market Salad was perfect. It’s fresh and crunchy with carrots, apples, celery root, fennel, butternut squash, kale and spicy pepitas, all “married” with a mustard-cider vinaigrette. Josh ordered a Great Lakes favorite—walleye pike. It was pan roasted with baby clams, linguica sausage, corn and red potatoes in a lobster broth. A winner!

My new Chicago neighborhood. I chose one of the most food-centric areas in which to live—the West Loop section of Chicago. I can easily walk to Girl and the Goat, Embeya, Avec, Sepia and Au Cheval, among other buzz-worthy restaurants. But there’s also a lot of tasty takeout near my apartment. And once again, I’m relying on that as I unpack dozens and dozens of cartons (why did I take so much stuff?) and try to settle in. Restaurants including Saigon Sisters (drunken noodles with shrimp), Little Goat Diner (pork belly pancake) and many of the kiosks at the French Market just three blocks away have nourished and welcomed me with excellent examples of Chicago food, friendliness and hospitality. I already feel at home.

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