I’ve always felt that your birthday is the day that you’re allowed to be as selfish as you want to be. Your day, your choices. You should not work, you should sleep late, and you should indulge in anything and everything that you want. But a few years ago, I reached a point where I no longer knew what to do about larger celebrations. When I lived in a place where I was surrounded by lots of close friends, parties or dinners were easy to organize and always expected. But now, in a city where I count my number of friends on one hand and feel my strongest connections reside in all the manners except face-to-face, cobbling together a birthday fete seems forced. So, I’ve started to escape the task and go on mini-breaks when the big day rolls around. I am almost always at my most happy when on vacation, so coupling a holiday with my birthday has been beyond the right decision. The first year I went to Philly and D.C., last year was Chicago, and this year was Nashville. Food is central to the trip, and a splurge restaurant has been the norm for my celebratory dinner.
When I was about 11 years old, I went on a short family trip to North Carolina to visit a cousin who was attending school there. I don’t remember much beyond swimming at the hotel pool, visiting a TJ Maxx, and walking around the Duke campus (although my cousin was a Tar Heel). So, I’ll say that this trip to Nashville was my first time experiencing The South, whatever that means. Upon reflection, it means for me that my dinner at The Catbird Seat was where I finally understood Southern hospitality.
Can warmth be disingenuous? Probably not, but I think you can tell when someone’s working at it. And that doesn’t mean phoney smiles and saccharine sweetness, it just means that you’re aware that someone knows it’s their job to take care of you and make you feel comfortable. Which is wonderful! But the genuine warmth I felt in Nashville, and especially at The Catbird Seat, was such that it looked and felt effortless. Taking care of you and making you feel comfortable was almost innate, not an extra to remember. It wasn’t formal or too familiar. Smiles, but no jokes. Patient and not patronizing. Perhaps I’m too jaded by New York service to recognize anymore that this is normal. I feel like all I can see and feel when home is no service, apathy with half a smile, or good, but worked-at service. And this is just in terms of general demeanour, not even quality of execution. In any case, I spend time on this because a lot of my affinity for my birthday meal has to do with feeling welcome and relaxed. Even when awkwardly eating dishes with my fingers or feeling the beverage pairing go to my head, I felt more like a guest and less like a customer. In other cooking-as-theatre tasting menu experiences I’ve had, such as at Momofuku Ko or Blanca, conversation with those serving you felt discouraged or to be kept to a minimum. I didn’t feel there was any more talking at Catbird, but again, that which took place was more conversational and fun.
After what my photo count reveals as 16 courses, I felt full but not stuffed. Many of the courses were more than one bite, but the portions and pacing were spot on for enjoying a meal of that length. The final savoury course of crispy pork tail felt like the main course with its heft and flavour, but it did not have the zipper on my dress fearing dessert. I never take notes when I eat, so the detail of most courses got lost in the wine. I liked the roe on the romaine a lot, and then how the presentation was echoed later with the sorrel leaves of the “key lime pie.” Despite being told that the nigiri was made with potato instead of rice, there still was unexpected delight in the taste. Sure, the oyster on the lavender was worth a picture, but the real fun was inhaling the perfume before sending the bivalve down. The high drama moment was using my fingers to delicately separate the pretty begonias and snail eggs to discover the beef tartare underneath. But overall, it was not a dramatic presentation of “How they’d do that?” dishes. Confirmation of why I happily paid what I did was not because of unique colours and shapes. Everything looked like it was touched with the lightest of hand—almost effortless?—yet the taste revealed the finest knowledge and skill.