They say that one of the major attractions of today's shopping malls isn't shopping. It's people watching. Another major nonshopping activity is eating. Put the two together and you've got a place like Centre Court, an "open air" restaurant in the White Flint mall, where the tables are placed to give you a view of the passing throng.
The restaurant, operated for several months by La Ruche restaurateurs, occupies space formerly held by The Loft. Although a limited number of entrees are offered, Centre Court is best used as a take-a-load-off-your-feet shopping break, for lunch, snacks, a drink or a sweet. The menu includes half a dozen snack/appetizers, soups and salads, about 20 sandwiches, a raw bar, various cold platters, a few desserts and seven entrees, four of which are merely bigger adaptations of the appetizers or cold plates.
The chicken soup is a real gem, perhaps the best item on the menu. It is a remarkably flavorful broth crammed with firm noodles and lively vegetables, with shredded chicken arranged on top. (You can get a bigger portion, called "Chicken, in a Pot" as an entree.) The gazpacho is pleasant, too, and there's also a decent chili. But the seafood chowder is brassy and overseasoned.
Safe bets are the immense sandwiches, big enough for two, and served with crisp vegetables and a good, oregano-laced dip. Look especially for the chunky shrimp and chicken salad sandwiches.
Among the appetizers, shrimp tarragon is excellent; the plump, tender shrimp contrasting nicely with the tarragon-pepper marinade. Also top-notch are the chicken wings, a big plate of meaty little drumsticks, marinated in a herb mixture and roasted so that the meat is moist and subtly flavored. The hearts of palm salad is very good, as is the broccoli and cauliflower in lemon juice.
The ratatouille would have been excellent as well, except that it seemed dominated by cumin flavor. There's a fine turkey salad with big chunks of meat in a delicately flavored, mustardy sauce, and a chicken salad in a vaguely similar sauce. Decidedly unpleasant were the new potatoes vinaigrette, which might better have been called "old potatoes vinaigrette."
Which brings us to the Achilles heel of Centre Court: the quality control. One night the mussels are fine, another night they are shriveled and leathery. One day the French bread is stale, another day fresh. One diner gets practically no tuna in the tuna and noodles, another gets plenty. Eating out shouldn't be this much of a gamble.
To end on a positive note, there's a terrific dessert here. It's a dark, wonderfully deep-flavored brownie topped with an equally potent hot fudge, vanilla ice cream and real whipped cream -- dynamite, and worth a stop in itself. (If you want nobly to deprive yourself of a few calories, the brownies are available bare.)