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In Nashville's growing foodscape, a day of celebration turns into a movable feast

Many Happy Returns



"Ain't no birthday like a Facebook birthday, cuz a Facebook birthday is ... easier to remember."

It was with that electronically heartfelt online salutation that cookbook author and Bites contributor Nicki Wood recently ushered this Gemini into a new decade. Thanks to the many Facebook "friends" — including La Hacienda Taqueria — who pinged similar messages across the ether, wishing me memorable and worthwhile celebratory meals.

Yes, I ate a few. My recent bout of extreme birthday indulgence was a veritable calor-a-thon that kicked off with locally roasted Drew's Brews at Ugly Mugs and wound up, days later, with cocktails and doughnuts at The Patterson House. My celebratory circuit of favorite restaurants, bakeries and watering holes was a happy reminder of just how much there is to rejoice about on the local dining scene, from a naughty breakfast of Sweet 16th's coconut macaroons, to Dessert Designs' exquisite birthday cake of chocolate truffle and white sponge layers under thick salted-caramel icing.

My food-oriented festivities began in the sylvan sun of Cheekwood's ladylike Pineapple Room. Three friends of a certain age clinked glasses of iced tea with me over bountiful salads of fried green tomatoes, goat cheese, bacon and green-tomato compote before diving into the aforementioned caramel cake, which we brought with us.

A few hours later, I loaded my hungry brood into the minivan and headed to Bricktop's for family dinner. With mouths watering over the promise of grilled artichokes, chunky guacamole, chicken fingers, burgers and mac-and-cheese, we arrived at the hostess stand to discover a half-hour wait at the clubby West End eatery. Since the kids were hungry and, well, I wasn't getting any younger, we diverted to another favorite locally grown chain, J. Alexander's, which filled the bill with its own excellent repertoire of — you guessed it — grilled artichokes, chunky guacamole, chicken fingers, burgers and mac-and-cheese.

It's hard to top the combination of family and fried food, but this was, after all, a milestone birthday. When the weekend rolled around, we needed a milestone meal. It used to be that on landmark occasions we turned to Zola, where chef Deb Paquette consistently charmed us with her innovative array of North African- and Mediterranean-inspired inventions. When Paquette picked up stakes on her Saharan tent in January 2010, we turned to Seema Phillips' fledgling Miel restaurant for special-event dining. So imagine my delight when Chef Deb, who is plotting her next culinary venture, landed temporarily at Miel — just in time for my birthday. Yes, I know Deb and Seema didn't team up specifically to pamper me in my senescence, but their ultimate girl-power combo sure conspired to make getting older more palatable.

I knew I was in for something special when a blinking tiara arrived at the table in a sauté pan as I took my seat on Miel's enchanted garden patio. Thus crowned, I launched into a feast fit for a queen. An amuse-bouche of crostini with Noble Springs goat cheese, preserved lemon peel and almonds cleared the way for plump Fanny Bay oysters, whose ruffled half-shells cradled a delicate mignonette of shallots and sherry vinegar. Escargots arrived nestled around a circular palette, with warm crusty boules of French bread for sopping up parsley butter tinged with roasted garlic. House-made ravioli with confit duck, chestnuts and caramelized onions lurked beneath indulgent pan-seared scallops, finished with a sauté of celery, leeks, carrots and spinach and a chicken-mushroom demi-glace.

After the starters, an unexpected intermezzo materialized, in a gleaming silver breadbasket. Unwrapping the crisp-laundered white napkin, I wondered what the odd-shaped treats inside could be. By dim candlelight, they initially appeared to be curls of candied citrus zest ... or maybe tentacles of octopus ... or fried onion rings? Oh, good lord, no! Chef Deb had followed the most aphrodisiac assortment of appetizers with a nest of rubber dentures encrusted with fake blood. (She never travels without them, she later told me.) And so it was, outfitted with strobe tiara and prosthetic teeth, that I received my entrée: a piggy duet of slow-cooked pork belly with carrot-fennel mousse and braised pork butt with poached apricots and a medley of root vegetables harvested from Miel's kitchen garden near the bank of the Cumberland River. In the darkness of alfresco dining, the ingredients were barely visible, but the contrast of sweet fruits, salty pork and earthy broth, and the layered textures of unctuous belly, singed fat and molten cipollini onions painted an indelible picture.

The next surprise came courtesy of pastry chef Angela Reynolds, who assembled a decadent trio of profiteroles bulging with warm pastry cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce; smoked cardamom chocolate ice cream; and cantaloupe sorbet served in an icy boat of frozen melon rind on a bed of ginger cookie crumbs.

As the weekend concluded and I began to digest my new advanced age, I traded tiara for a wider-brimmed headpiece at La Hacienda Taqueria. Because at some point between the bottomless chips and salsa and the steaming bowl of shrimp soup, someone blabbed that it was my birthday, and I got to wear the ceremonial silver-and-blue birthday sombrero while the staff sang to me in Spanish and handed me a soaking-sweet slice of tres leches cake with a candle in it. Sure, I pretended to be embarrassed, much to the delight of my children. But I knew what I was in for, and I looked forward to it. It's one thing to get a message of "Feliz Cumpleaños" on Facebook, but it's quite another to get wear a big hat on your big day.


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