by Mike Corrigan

You typically don't "dine" at the food court. You refuel, shoveling it down in a desperate bid to avoid hypoglycemia so that you can maintain your shopping safari. Typically, you forsake your nutritional standards for the sake of convenience and speed. Yet it doesn't have to be that way.

Twigs (on the third level of River Park Square, near the escalators) offers food and atmosphere that manages to transcend commonly held food court preconceptions. The next time you're hauling self and purchases through this labyrinthine shopping wonderland looking for a spot to park it and have a nosh without succumbing to the routine mall dining experience, stop here and find what we found on the second-to-last shopping day before Christmas.

The storefront, ordering counter and seating area at Twigs are modern and stylish, decked out with track lighting, tiled floors, handsome pine tables and complementary black hardwood chairs. The refrigerated deli case up front is bursting with impressive-looking salads and tempting desserts. It's almost enough to make you forget you are dining in a mall. Almost.

The lunch menu of the day offered an array of intriguing and competitively priced choices including sandwiches and wraps (all from $5-$6), soups, topped baked potatoes, combos and a section called "hot off the grill" where you choose among seven options (battered fish, cheeseburger deluxe, crispy chicken sandwich, ham and Swiss melt, etc.) and get fries and a 16 oz. soda in the deal for $5.95. Salads ran the gamut from the basic Farmer's Salad ($2.75, $3.95) and a Caesar ($4.50) to the Thai Chicken, California Cobb and Peppery Parmesan Spinach Pasta salads ($5.50-$5.75 each). There was also a thoughtful kids' menu with multiple choices for $3.95 each, the star of which had to be the "hot dog on a twig." There was also a salad in the deli case which was not on the menu and which looked incredible: the Smoked Salmon Caesar Pasta for $4.25 and $6.25 (Note to the chef: I'll be coming back soon for that one.)

After you check out the colorful menu boards and make a decision, approach the counter and order. In our case it was the Chicken Caesar Wrap with Tim's Cascade Chips ($5.50), the Bacon Burger from the $5.95 "Hot off the Grill" menu, a Broccoli and Cheddar Baked Potato ($3.95). To wash it all down, a round of fresh "Hand Beaten" lemonade was added for just a dollar more.

The employees here all seemed to be taking their functions in the lunch production chain seriously and conscientiously. And though there was a lot of scurrying around in the kitchen and prep areas -- we did come during the lunch rush -- everyone seemed very pleasant and helpful. That said, our wait was quite long -- at least 20 minutes. Still, they were very busy, and the food here is admittedly more labor-intensive than the chow at Subway and Panda Express.

The food, when it came up, seemed to be worth the wait. The Chicken Caesar Wrap was tidy and smartly presented. Inside the tightly wrapped basil tortilla was a winning mixture of tender chicken, romaine lettuce, and diced tomatoes and artichoke hearts in a tangy Caesar dressing. And Tim's chips are always appreciated as a side. It was delicious and surprisingly filling.

More accolades went to the Bacon Burger with its very lean and tasty beef patty, crispy bacon and big slab of real cheddar. It came on a quality bun with a side of some of those excellent "signature" fries. (Yes, we noticed the crisp yet tender texture along with the lovely hint of potato skin.)

The baked potato, however, looked suspiciously like it might have been the first part of our order to be assembled. The cheese (again, 100% real cheddar, thank you) had melted and re-hardened all over the bottom of the paper potato boat. The key to a good broccoli-and-cheese baked potato is cheese that is fairly liquid upon serving; otherwise, you have the characteristically dry texture of the tater leavened only by congealed cheesy gobs and rough little shrubs of broccoli. Such was the case here. On the upside, the potato itself was perfectly baked and we appreciated the freshly steamed broccoli florets. With the aforementioned cheese problem fixed, you'd have yourselves a nice little potato lunch.

Twigs, a hybrid of fine dining and mall food, works infinitely better than I just described it. It has a lot going for it in terms of quality food, quality people, atmosphere and value. Put down those bags, why don't you? Take a load off and give it a shot.

Publication date: 12/25/03

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