Brackets: Dining Here is Up the Creek If You're Without a Paddle.

When a sitcom actor surrenders to the lure of a movie contract or retirement or heavy drug use, the show's producers have two choices: They can write the actor's character out of their scripts or they can recruit a replacement with roughly the same build and hairstyle and hope viewers keep their noses buried in their TV dinners.

Brackets, the sleek sports bar that last year settled into the venue vacated by Trader Vic's, has opted for the culinary version of the latter strategy. Rather than exorcise the fun-seeking vibe that buttressed the Tiki dreamland in its heyday, Brackets has enthusiastically taken on its predecessor's obligation to entertain. (Note the two pingpong tables in the center of the room.) While nobody would mistake the brightly lit space for Trader Vic's, the very different restaurants share an important organizing principle: People eat out because they like to have a good time.

Brackets is so committed to upholding 5330 Mockingbird Lane's legacy of amusement that it offers good-timing two ways. Guests can follow the beer and pingpong route or they can immerse themselves in the surprisingly upscale—and pricey—menu of ambitious cocktails and gussied-up food. If the Brackets dining experience was a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book, the fateful phrase "bacon whiskey Manhattan" would probably signal a premature end. Fancy is definitely not the way to go here.

Sure, you can get fancy fish at Brackets, but we prefer the burger and pingpong combo.
Sara Kerens
Sure, you can get fancy fish at Brackets, but we prefer the burger and pingpong combo.

Location Info

Map

Brackets

5300 E. Mockingbird Lane
Dallas, TX 75206

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: East Dallas & Lakewood

Details

Brackets 5330 Mockingbird Lane, 214-823-0123, www.bracketsdallas.com. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m Sunday-Wednesday and 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Thursday-Sunday. $$
Tuna nachos $11 Short rib nachos $9 Buffalo wings $5 Brackets burger $10 Shrimp and grits $19 Lobster ravioli $25 Rib-eye $26 Cheese pizza $10

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That conclusion's not immediately clear from the menu, which lists six beers on tap and more than four dozen wines, spanning the Pacific coast from central Chile to Oregon's Willamette Valley. The list includes a few reliable choices that are quirky by sports bar standards—there's a white blend from Sokol Blosser and a pinot noir from Argyle—but Brackets charges dearly for them. A 2008 Cakebread Chardonnay, which retails for about $30, is $99 here.

Prices are fairer on the cocktail side of the menu, but the bar so badly bungled my Manhattan that I didn't dare explore the drinks made with mango black tea-infused rum or elderflower liqueur. The cocktail, built around bourbon infused with applewood bacon, reeked of foul smoke. The whiskey tasted fatty and rancid and was disturbingly reminiscent of the concoction I created when I got the notion to honor Appalachia by soaking country ham in moonshine. It takes a certain talent to make moonshine less palatable.

I don't know how many Brackets patrons have fooled around with corn whiskey, but it seems many of them at least share my displeasure with the bacon cocktail: When I signaled for a waiter to ask whether I could have an overpriced glass of wine instead, he swept my Manhattan off the table before I could explain the problem.

Perhaps ahi tuna nachos have inspired similar complaints, since our server reflexively brought us braised short rib nachos when we asked for the tuna version. "Just keep 'em," he said when we pointed out the mistake. Both nacho plates were soggy and limp. The beef was disconcertingly pallid and failed to keep pace with the jalapeños heaped on the plate. The kitchen had attempted a sesame-seed crust intervention on the tuna, but a bit of salt and seasoning couldn't rescue the squishy fish, which was largely obscured by a murky wasabi cream sauce anyhow.

Everything was out of proportion on the entrées too. Steak always seems like a safe choice in a restaurant with more televisions than service staff, since the kitchen's surely mastered burger beef. But cattle know-how apparently isn't fungible. When one of my guests ordered a rib-eye medium rare, he was served a cold, bloody steak bolstering an outsized pile of clammy fried onions. The accompanying gluey mashed potatoes didn't help.

Rounds of lobster ravioli, pink as a flower girl's dress, were overcome by a sage cream sauce with such a strong mint accent that was impossible to eat without thinking of toothpaste. A mushy serving of shrimp and jalapeño polenta was spoiled by what was billed as smoked paprika butter: The gritty sauce had an unpleasant hot tar heat that stamped out every other flavor on the plate.

That's no way to have fun. Fortunately, there's a better way to enjoy Brackets. Diners who ignore the menu's entrée section and request a pair of pingpong paddles will find little reason to complain.

Brackets' pingpong well, encircled by tables, doesn't meet Olympic specifications. It's unlikely to impress any table tennis players serious enough about the game to confidently recall the scoring system: If you know how to handle a let serve, you're bound to be bothered by the giant TV hung on a wall behind the field of play. The paddles are cheap. (If that sounds redundant, you haven't spent much time shopping for pingpong equipment lately: The cheapest racket in the clearance bin at Paddle Palace, an online table tennis emporium, is $85.)

And there are irritations for novices too: Any restaurant that offers drinks and pingpong should provide a handy spot for competitors to set down their drinks while playing. But conditions are still far better at Brackets than in Uncle Jack's basement, so all's forgiven.

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