What to expect: Brackets stands as a testament to the vast gulf between aspiration and execution. The aspiration is to blend clubhouse and culinary experiences into a new seamless hybrid. The execution of this hybrid feels just disjointed enough to be disconcerting. The rub is apparent from the get-go. Specials smack of finer dining but the sea of flashing sports images and courtside swilling hinders true immersion in the menu. And while the menu covers the bases from tempura to Cabernet-braised short ribs, the 20 big screens and the sounds of drunken ping-pong detract from the social club vibe that Brackets reaches for. (On the other hand, were I in the mood simply to drink, grab a bite, and best my husband at pool—which is what normally happens when we cross cues—Brackets’ sporty ping-pong, billiards, Wii, and darts would provide enough variety to satisfy that need.)
The setup: Located on the Mockingbird Lane side of the Palomar, Brackets is crazy convenient if you happen to be traveling north on Central Expressway or east on Mockingbird (But not so much if you’re traveling west. If this is the case, park across the street at Mockingbird Station and make like Frogger.) Parking is nonexistent; the complimentary valet is both convenient and necessary.
Inside, the vibe is vinyl and laminate with touches of mood lighting and red accents in the form of painted walls and uplighting. Poured concrete floors lend an industrial edge, but the sunken ping-pong arena is reminiscent of a latter-day Thunderdome surrounded by glass instead of Mel Gibson’s geodesic cage.
On the menu: All of the above does a serious disservice to Chef Pedro Castrejon’s menu. We were seated on the edge of Thunderdome (as we were the only ones in the restaurant, my guess is that this is considered a prime table) and learned very quickly that it’s hard to enjoy a skillfully crafted special (more on this later) with ping-pong balls smacking into the glass wall by your head.
Menu items ran from generally OK to spectacular. We started with the house ceviche appetizer, a citrusy combination of chopped shrimp and fish topped by an avocado mousse that could have passed for crème fraiche, and garnished with inky flying fish roe. The combination was not bad, yet nothing to get effusive about here. The portion was quite large (a plus) but slightly chewy, though not inedible. The pleasing notes of citrus redeemed the dish to the point where, about halfway through, I dispensed with the chips and used my fork. At the same time, we tucked into a spinach salad with Granny Smith apple, salty candied pecans, and shaved fennel. While the opposite may be the case for most diners, the fact that the salad was not overly dressed scored big points with me. I take far more enjoyment in the flavor of the elements than I do in any dressing. Unencumbered, the spinach was allowed to express its full earthiness, and the seasonings on the pecans remained savory and luscious.
A regular menu item, the shrimp & grits was upgraded to a special with the addition of scallops and an orange/citrus-based reduction. The first bites brought the table conversation to a standstill. The combination of silky, velvety scallops and tender shrimp over grits that managed to be simultaneously hearty and lofty provided the highlight of the meal. Either layered on the fork or individually, the elements worked.
As the menu featured Jay Jerrier’s Cane Rosso pizza (although Jerrier’s name is not mentioned), I was anxious to see what Brackets would turn out under his Neapolitan banner. (For those who have not been keeping track, Jerrier has devoted the last portion of his life to learning how to make authentic wood-fired Neapolitan pizza, importing his own oven from Naples. The flagship Cane Rosso in Deep Ellum should open any day now. He served as consultant to Brackets on their pizza offerings.) We ordered the special pizza of the evening, which turned out to be a not-so-winning combination of sweet pulled pork, mushrooms, and green and red bell peppers. The crust drooped pitifully under the moisture of the vegetables, the basil leaves that served as garnish were burned to ash, and the BBQ sweetness of the pork dominated every other ingredient. However, we would not know this for quite some time as the chef had to take a couple runs at making the pizza before he was successful in producing a pie suitable for serving. Our waitress apologized, explaining that Brackets had brought in a consultant to teach them how to use the oven, but that they just hadn’t gotten the hang of it yet.
A word on dessert: The Brackets Chocolate Taco—chocolate mousse piped into an almond brittle "taco" shell topped with fresh berries and wild berry drizzle—was unsettlingly fluffy and tumescent. Ours arrived without berries, and we took great humor in smushing the mousse around the plate and making jokes only a 12-year-old boy could appreciate. To its credit, the mousse tasted fine and light, as did the almond brittle, although I had to stop eating the latter out of concern for my dental work.
Who was there: The crowd varied from after-work singletons to 50-something guys on a ping-pong man-date to middle management in sport coats.
Where to sit: Depends. If your mood calls for being in the thick of it, ask to sit beside the ping-pong pit. Feeling a little more intimate? Head for the tables at the eastern end of the bar.
Price: For the ceviche ($11), spinach salad ($8), scallop entrée ($17), pizza ($12), two glasses of wine ($11 ea.), and one dessert ($6), our bill came to $80 before tip.
Nice detail: Once they master the oven, Brackets should be able to spread the Neapolitan word by turning out a variety of Il Cane Rosso pizzas on the first try.
The takeaway: Come early if you want dinner or a spot in line for the table games. People check tables out by the hour (and the games are free to patrons), so plan to wait your turn. As for the food, the grits made the night for me. Luckily they come as a side. I’d happily fork over $4 to have a dish all to myself anytime.