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(out of five)

Comforts of Home

Old College Inn
2204 Cumberland Ave.

by Les DuLunch

I'm back—like an almost forgotten cocaine addiction or an overlooked DUI. And what's on my mind this week, besides the future of the country's leadership? Dinner, of course.

The desperate shamelessness of the political landscape inspires a longing in me for comfy, classic dishes. While politicos wallow in vague, crowd-pleasing statements or callow finger pointing, I'd rather just use my own mind to weigh the issues, vote my conscience early, and then bed down in a big ole pile of mashed potatoes to await the outcome. So, on Sunday night, after watching harried reporters count down the days on MSNBC, Fredro and I sought escape at Cumberland Avenue's Old College Inn.

Old College Inn has long been one of my favorite Knoxville restaurants. Throughout the years I've eaten there, the food has been consistently well prepared. The restaurant's shady environment suits almost any occasion—an intimate, dim locale for a date, a quiet introduction to Knoxville's basic values and cuisine for out-of-town visitors, or just a great place to sit and hide out with friends over beer. The booths are lumpen and uncomfortable, the tables placed at an awkward distance from the diner, and it's so dark inside that your pupils immediately swell to the size of plate chargers. But none of that seems to detract from the pleasantly lackadaisical atmosphere.

OCI has all the college cachet of other big-budget restaurants, but without any of their constructed artifice. The sensibilities here are effortless. Simple framed newspaper pages declaring Vol victories hover overhead in the gloom. A piece of Big Orange goal post pokes out of an alcove. While Dave Matthews serenades the dining room, "Country Grammar" blares from the cramped kitchen, along with shouts, whoops, and hollers from what seems like an especially vivacious staff.

The cooks have every reason to feel good about the food that emerges through their narrow swinging door. OCI offers up simple dishes that, in all honesty, sometimes border on the bland, but succeed based simply on their winning personality. Without resorting too much to the tired Americana of the steaks and chicken breasts angle, OCI's food is still every bit as American as baseball or jazz. As American as Ford or Chevy trucks. As American as being diverted by the abortion issue while forgetting that the children we do have are forced to raise money for their public schools via bake sales despite a gazillion-dollar federal budget.

Although OCI's burgers, served open-face on English muffins in about eight different varieties, may well tempt you, you'll want to begin your menu perusal on the $7-range Famous Dinners page. It doesn't get any better than this. Here's where you'll find the restaurant's signature dish—mett and beans. Mettwurst, the soft, white-pepper-flavored German pork sausage, is deliciously fatty and smooth textured. OCI grills the already smoked tube lightly, then applies a convenient cross-hatch cutting to pierce the skin and release internal moisture. It's set atop gravy-like navy beans, and complemented by meaty, smoke-flavored chili and a dollop of refreshing relish. This is everything you ever wanted in comfort food.

Unless you wanted to try OCI's fish and chips dinner, which is everything else that you might want in comfort food. Three ample fillets of Atlantic cod are breaded in a crunchy white flour batter and set afloat in oceans of oil, along with the accompanying skins-on fries. Also served with cole slaw to cut the greasy slack, OCI's fish and chips are like the guilty pleasure of Long John Silver's with the additional guilty pleasure of beer available nearby.

On this particular Sunday night, though, we departed from established favorites like those. To complement our bread in a bottle (Rolling Rock for Fredro, Sierra Nevada Pale for me), we selected a slightly different spin on the fried cheese we ordinarily favor. Instead of Mozzarella sticks, which are available, we opted for some Hot Pepper Bings ($5.25). The bite-sized balls of low-spice Pepper Jack cheese are husked in a too-thick breading and served with marinara, although they're better with ranch dressing. Should've fallen back on the old stand-by—OCI's crunchy, genuine potato skins, complemented simply with cheddar cheese, big bacon bits, and sour cream.

Fredro chose Ricotta-and-spinach-stuffed manicotti from OCI's slightly pricier $8-range Specialty Dinner section. After pausing to devour an Iceberg salad made with buttery homemade croutons, he turned his attention to the marinara-drowned plate. I'll admit that I was suspicious of the Italian offerings at a restaurant that specialized in plain, homestyle dishes, but discovered a surprisingly fresh tomato sauce and obviously hand-formed stuffed pasta.

My hot brown turkey dinner ($6.95) was so deceptively simple a pleasure I almost forgot to savor it. Hand-pulled pieces of moist, white-meat turkey were piled high atop a thick slice of toasted white bread and served with three mountainous scoops of mashed potatoes smothered in a flood of mellow brown gravy. Not mixed with too much milk or cream, not cut with garlic or chives, not lumpy or ridden with skins, OCI's mashed potatoes are as classic as penny loafers and chinos. Still dry enough to hold the scoop's shape, they absorb the gravy beautifully. Another dim-witted Republican from a few years back never would've gotten into that embarrassing spelling bee debacle if he'd stopped by for some of these.

Ultimately, Old College Inn mines a timelessly honorable vein. No fuzzy formulas. No ham-handed lack of expertise. Just good food, and plenty of it.

November 9, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 45
© 2000 Metro Pulse