Getting schooled

There’s not much of a church school left at Saint Ann — other than a heavenly way with comfort food

SIZZLE | Bacon-wrapped chicken and jalapeno? We are so there. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

OVERALL RATING: 3.5 Stars
Saint Ann, 2501 N. Harwood St. Open daily for lunch and dinner; Sunday brunch . 214-782-9807.
A hipster vibe in this converted schoolhouse undergirds some enjoyable American classics and thoughtful bar food. And the garden dining is great.

Food: 3 stars
Atmosphere: 4 stars
Service:3.5 stars
Price: Moderate

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I went to Catholic school, so I can tell you from personal knowledge the food in the cafeteria there was nothing like it is at Saint Ann. Although located in a renovated church school opened in 1927 to serve Hispanic kids, it feels more hipster-chic than institutional drab. A Plexiglas floor reveals a gravel substrate two feet below; comfy stuffed chairs and sofas in the bar area make waiting for your table seem less like sitting outside the principal’s office and more like Friday afternoon in the teacher’s lounge. And a decent-if-unexceptional, but inexpensive, by-the-glass wine selection gives you more drinking options than we had hanging outside the senior’s parking lot after class.

The vibe of the place has moved from whack-your-knuckles nuns to slap-yo’-mama good food. Saints preserve us!

At essence, Saint Ann is more sophisticated pub-grub with a cool atmosphere than schmancy fine dining destination. But it is a destination nonetheless: Nuzzling its front patio away from a one-way street and facing the distaff side of the Crescent, it takes a bit of navigating to find, but is well worth a trip.

The kitchen sexes up many of the dishes with indulgent ideas. The unmissable app is the grilled sizzlers ($8.50) —bacon-wrapped chicken nuggets that get a kick from jalapeño and garlic. Ignore the sports bar pedigree and revel only in the execution: potent, fatty, flavorful blackened nuggets dipped in a soothing ranch. The quesadillas ($8) are more like cheesy crepes with a pico-tang from the chipotle crema and cilantro.

The centerpieces of the menu, even at dinner, are sandwiches, soups and meal-sized salads (there are as many to choose from as dinner entrées). The onion soup ($5.50) was only average, but the diced vegetables floating around the lentil soup-du-jour imbued a hearty warmth that was especially welcome on the chilly day we sampled it.

The au jus ribeye French dip ($12), sliced thin and baked with cheese on a baguette scored with its bite from horseradish. But it’s hard to resist ordering something called a “dirty burger” (that’s where my mind goes), so I didn’t. A half-pound gourmet patty dressed with thin, crisp planks of bacon and gooey white Vermont cheddar came on a bun that seemed tailor-made to hold all the flavor. (Over- or under-sized buns, or limp ones that break apart when you pick them up, are Kryptonite to a super burger.) The waffle fries outshone the sweet potato fries, which were underwhelming.

Spaghetti is the cuisine of the church school, and this version ($10.50), served with an oily Bolognese sauce, wasn’t too traditional — it lacked comfort-food cred, even as I respect the effort. The bold flavor of pesto on the linguini ($14.50) was well to my liking, and the medallions of chicken conveyed an herbal freshness.

I wanted more of a sear on the scallops ($15), though they tasted great with cilantro lime crema, despite resting on a bed of slight undercooked grits. By the time I got to the dessert — a chocolate croissant bread pudding rich enough to  run for president — all other minor sins were forgiven.

Saint Ann’s charms carry it a long way, from the menu on lined grammar-school (complete with grade and corrected spelling), but I wouldn’t go back if the food didn’t draw me. School may almost be out for the summer, but Saint Ann has class to spare.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 6, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Munch madness: Brackets makes a run as an upscale sports bar, but it’s a swing and a miss

THE USUAL LINEUP  |  Even upscale sports bars stick to the fundamentals: Pizzas (pretty good), nachos and nibbles. No home runs, though.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

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.

—  John Wright