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Comfort Me with Iceberg

117 Cedar Lane

by Ally Carte

Even the most intrepid of restaurant reviewers, which this one only moderately is, needs a night off.

Try as I might this weekend, the idea of breezily jaunting over to a brand-spankin' new eatery only filled me with dread, rather than enthusiasm. I just couldn't face another intriguing yet unfamiliar combination of disparate tastes, no matter how artfully presented, with any sense of adventure. And the knowledge that service kinks can be great and frustrating in a restaurant just finding its footing didn't help my admittedly-grim attitude.

Nor did taking my chances with any unknown (to me) yet highly recommended hole in the wall offer much hope. The problem with neighborhood dives is that they can be so remarkably inconsistent. And, what is manna from the heavens in the eyes of a regular, an outsider may find remarkably average. Maybe my recent restaurant malaise stems from the wacky couple of months we've all been having, coupled with the bizarre sinus fun I've been enjoying since all of this smoke drifted in to town. I seem to be in need of comfort, the warm fire of the familiar. Which is why I ultimately gave in and went to O'Charley's.

Yeah, I know. No one rails against chain restaurants more than me. It all tastes the same, I rant with spittle flying. Why would anyone subject themselves to such mediocrity, when there are such diverse choices available? It's a rhetorical question, really, and one for which the answer is obvious.

Folks love a franchise because it's unchallenging and consistent. What makes them so generic is what we most love about them. Walk into an Applebee's in Des Moines and, with the exception of the server's accents, you'll have the exact same experience as the location in Knoxville. And while I would hate to have no other choices but those that the rest of the nation has, chains are always there when you're in need of a meal that has been finely honed by marketing science.

Of course, I have a hierarchy of chains. I'd rather take on a biker bar than be subjected to the blandness of Ruby's. Denny's is good only for breakfast and Friendly's is best for desert. Mama Carte is a big fan of Shoney's, so we go there when she swings through town. Perkins, of which there are few in this area, is perfect for coffee and sandwiches. And O'Charley's is my favorite place to go when feeling a bit puny and in need of some comfort, which is conveniently shaped just like their Southern fried chicken salad.

I have admittedly vague memories of the mid-'80s but seem to remember that part of the decade as the time when salads suddenly started getting bigger. Gone was the diminutive side salad of wilty iceberg that was the desultory beginning of any chain eatery meal. In was the shar pei-sized trough of crisp iceberg that had been topped, mixed, or tossed with any number of more fun items, like sautéed chicken or French fries or tortilla chips or heaps of veggies. In those days obsessed with Jane Fonda's workout, a salad suddenly became a full meal.

Unfortunately, these salads, especially once you douse them in dressing, no longer have any notable nutritional value. While a dietitian might cringe, they're still dang good in some sort of elemental/inner child sort of way. Take the Southern fried chicken salad ($7.99), the epitome of the genre in my opinion. Shatteringly crisp, deep fried planks of white meat chicken rest on top of a giant bed of iceberg, tomatoes, mushrooms, and shredded carrots and red cabbage bits. On the side is the perfect dressing, the honey mustard of one's dreams that is the one of the best fluids restaurant development has produced. Together, the liquid and solid ingredients form, in my not very humble opinion, a radiant example of salad technology, which, without fail, always makes me feel remarkably better somehow. Your mileage may vary.

Of course, O'Charley's has other offerings as well, although I rarely bother with them, given that I go there generally for just the one thing. I'm told that their grilled items, like steaks and fish, are pretty tasty and I'm sure that their sandwiches and burgers are serviceable. However, my forays into their soup section have been somewhat disappointing. The loaded potato soup ($2.49), a cloyingly thick potato bisque of sorts, topped with bacon, cheese, and chives, has always been thicker and richer (and, I suspect, loaded with MSG) than I can tolerate. The chicken tortilla soup ($2.49), a special offered the night got my salad fix, was surprisingly spicy, which was a welcome change from the blandness of most chains. Still, the spiciness just seemed to be present simply to cover-up the fact that the soup lacked any real dimension beyond the heat.

A word, however, on my (distantly) second favorite thing at O'Charley's, which would be those addictive, fluffy, slightly sweet dinner rolls. If Krispy Kreme's had a non-fried, non-glazed cousin in spirit and in texture, these pillows of yeast would be it.

Fortunately, my wallow in the Southern fried chicken salad seems to have done part of the trick, at least, and the promise of holiday goodies may be what helped me pull out of my food funk. Who knew simple greens could have such power?

November 22, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 47
© 2001 Metro Pulse