ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
Ever since the Hotel Palomar opened as a Hilton more than 40 years ago, it’s had a Trader Vic’s onsite — even when the restaurant was shuttered for more than a decade, the bones of it remained.
Until last year.
Now, the only tiki you’re likely to see in the space of the old Trader Vic’s is named Barber and may be commenting on one of the innumerable TV screens that dot the room. Gone are the wicker and bamboo; in their stead, brushed concrete and the green felt of pool tables. Polynesian is so 1962; Brackets is a the newest trend: The high-end sports bar.
Which is kinda sad. Are there any real sports bars left?
Brackets tries. You won’t recognize the space, which extends cavernously back a lot further than Traders Vic’s did. The food is slightly upscale, but the wide-open atmosphere, plethora of pool tables and ping-pong stations and dart boards mark this as a guy’s hang.
Which, just as March Madness is underway, it should be. Though it doesn’t have the buzz yet.
On several visits (including lunchtime during a recent game), we’ve been one of the few tables occupied by paying customers, and a sports bar demands buzz. You want to feel part of the action, lubricating it with likeable food and free-flowing alcohol. A lonely sports bar is really lonely.
The potential is there. The New York trend of high-end table-tennis gastropubs is its model, and if it catches on, this is the place to be for it. We liked the glass wall partitioning diners from the occasion stray ball landing in our soup, with a huge hi-def TV on the far wall to give up a clear view of the game. But you want someone playing on that table.
Otherwise, it’s just wasted space.
The kitchen tries for something as contemporary as the atmosphere. It’s what it needs to be — pub grub. And that means shareable bites with lots of flavor. That worked with the pepperoni rosettes and knotted garlic pizza dough ($8), sickeningly rich and delicious and almost certainly unhealthy-for-you appetizers that were meant to be washed down with a match playing over your shoulder. Probably slightly healthier but also good was the asparagus/green bean tempura ($8) with spicy Asian mayo. Good start.
Then came the short-rib nachos ($9). The chips themselves were more like fried wontons crisp, airy and firm and sufficient to support the plentiful garnishes on top. The meat was styled more like pulled pork than a more traditional bone-loosened strip, and the meat itself was excellent. We think. The black bean puree that crowned it was simply too salty and overpowering. Bar food is meant to make you thirsty — its how you sell beer — but this interfered with the taste. Although the guac looked slightly anemic and pale, the taste was spot-on — creamy with chunks, and we got lots of heat from the side of jalapeño.
The pizzas ($9–$15) are a combination of New York and Chicago styles: Airy but thin-crusted, except for the bulbous edge crust. They are filling without forcing you to feel engorged.
There are several thoughtful ideas to elevate the preparation, chiefly a wood-burning oven. That’s what’s used, we assume, to prepare the wood fired pork chop ($16). It’s a thickly cut slab of meat, but that’s a danger with a pork chop you’re not stuffing: It gets quickly tough, as this one did. The plum glaze, a gooey concoction, added sweetness to the garlic mashed potatoes, but only tended to obscure the flavors of the pork. Perhaps for good reason: The pork was bland. Sliders were more on track, especially coming on potato bread with matchstick fries.
Desserts are out of the popular playbook for middlebrow cuisine: molten chocolate cake and cheesecake and the way-over-the-top s’mores calzone ($6), so sweet as to make Julie Andrews seem like a bitch. It’s definitely diet defeating.
That’s all right during the playoffs. Or the NCAA finals. Or the Super Bowl. But what’s gonna get me coming back here off-season? That’ll take a hail mary.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 4, 2011.