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.



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

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.

Pingpong isn't the only diversion at Brackets. There's a pair of admirably clean pool tables, tournament dart boards and an ongoing beer bracket contest in which the most-ordered beer wins a starring role in the following week's promotional pricing scheme.

The best dishes on Brackets' menu are those that mesh with any of the above activities. I didn't sample everything at Brackets, but found "Would I eat this while playing darts?" to be a surefire litmus test for determining whether a dish was worth ordering. Wood-fired clams? No. Fried chicken sliders? Absolutely.

Interestingly, menu items seem to be slowly migrating from elegant to everyday. Brackets made a preopening fuss about its partnership with pizza maker Jay Jerrier, renowned in Dallas for his Neapolitan-style pies. After Jerrier's three-month consulting contract ended, Brackets announced it was abandoning his pizza program in favor of thick-crust pies, citing complaints from comment card writers who wondered why they couldn't get pizzas topped with jalapeños and bacon.

Brackets now serves a decent pizza for the masses. There's almost no sauce on it, but there's plenty of oregano-flecked cheese baked into little divots of gold. With its puffy buttered crust, the pizza's reminiscent of those served in places where pizza's not the point. I haven't eaten at a Chuck E. Cheese in ages, but my first bite of a Brackets pie made my Skee-Ball muscles twitch.

Chicken wings might be next up for modification. They're roasted, not fried, so the hot sauce sits unconvincingly atop the meat rather than being absorbed by it. I'm not sure how the limoncello and pepper variety will hold up to deep-frying, but it seems unlikely wishy-washy wings would make it past comment card writers during March Madness.

The burger at Brackets isn't playing in the same league as the better burgers in town, but it's a fine sandwich. The well-crusted patty's plopped between a wedge of avocado and substantial onion ring on a buttery sesame seed bun. It's not Trader Vic's beef cho cho, cooked on a tableside hibachi, but—paired with a feisty game of pingpong—it could make for an entertaining evening.

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