High Praise for Blind Tiger

The new underground Pan-Asian gastropub Blind Tiger is one of the best, most creative, and most affordable recent additions to Oakland’s dining scene.


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Blind Tiger tempts with yuzu crabcakes and maitake mushrooms with bacon

Photo by Lori Eanes

Arlo Guthrie said you can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant, but he probably didn’t try to order massaman curry fries or an Ooon O’Neil cocktail. For those, you need to go to Blind Tiger, one of the best, most creative, and most affordable recent additions to Oakland’s dining scene. First, though, you have to find the literally underground place that opened Feb. 29 at the northern edge of Uptown. It’s tucked between the Sam Won Billiard hall and the Korean barbecue and hotpot spot Gogi Time, at the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and 27th Street. Look for the spectacular tiger mural on the north wall of Gogi Time, at the end of a parking lot that occasionally has open spaces.

After you make your way through a rather nondescript, speakeasylike entrance—a black foyer with a tall floor-standing speaker cranking out EDM—and down the stairs or elevator, the stark initial impression gives way to a sense of surprise, if not awe. A team put together by Edward Yoo, a managing partner at Gogi Time, has transformed an 8,000-square-foot basement into an artful cave. It’s part sports bar, with giant TV screens looming over a slew of picnic tables in a huge party space festooned with brightly colored paper lanterns. And it is also part hipster hangout, with a 20-seat bar and a more private-feeling, pine-framed “shed” with subdued lighting, a long wooden banquette, wood-topped tables, and plastic Eames-style molded chairs. Don’t expect much intimacy, though, as music and conversations can create a deafening din anywhere in the restaurant.

Yoo and his friends and partners—including Torin Wong, Benjamin Liang, and muralists Steve Belale and “No One”—improvised the high-concept/low-budget decorative elements inside and out. Only the bar was professionally designed and constructed, by Philip Pasqualino, who, with Luke Stephens, crafted the striking metal tiger’s head sculpture, based on a saber-tooth mask, that serves as back-bar centerpiece and one of several mascots.

On its Instagram account, Blind Tiger is called a “pan-Asian gastropub and lounge.” On the restaurant’s website, it’s a “craft cocktail bar” serving pan-Asian inspired tapas. It’s all that and more. You can take your drinking and dining experiences in a variety of directions. On one night (if you’re not with Robin), you could eat entirely raw: Five or six different fresh oysters and clams are typically available, as are hamachi tiradito (Peruvian-derived yellow tail sashimi with daikon, Meyer lemon cintronette, and micro cilantro), ahi tuna poke with avocado, and Wagyu beef carpaccio with Vietnamese herb salad, fried shallots, and candied Fresno chiles.

Or, you could go all carnivore with lemongrass beef and pork meatballs, barbecue pork ribs, Mongolian beef dumplings, spicy Thai pork skewers (mu bing), fried Szechuan pepper frogs’ legs, seared rabbit, and a house cheeseburger. Those ribs and that burger, a house-ground beef patty packed into a wonderful egg bun with grilled onions, fried pickles, American cheese, and ramp aioli, could also anchor a pub-grub crawl through the menu, leading to beer-battered onion rings, house-cut fries, crispy chicken wings, and deviled pickled eggs, as well as one or two of the 20 beers on tap, including IPAs, pilsners, stouts, lagers, ciders, and red, blonde, Scotch, and Belgian ales.

It would be hard, however, to be a fully satisfied vegetarian at Blind Tiger. During each of our visits, we found fried green tomatoes, wok-charred shishito peppers, a shaved asparagus salad with avocado, radish, and oranges, and grilled tofu with charred eggplant and black garlic sauce on the menu. And we were lucky enough to score some extraordinary spicy peanut noodles (with the rough texture of Vietnamese cau lao) at one dinner. But to a vegan’s regret and my delight, house-cured bacon shows up in several dishes, such as housemade pot stickers, a little gems salad, and roasted maitake mushrooms with spring peas, grilled ramps, dashi, and fresh water chestnuts. And the messy massaman curry fries—a Thai spin on poutine, with peanut-y coconut cream curry serving as gravy—wouldn’t be the same without the braised beef short ribs in the sauce.

For chef Deena Chafetz, who mastered French, Italian, Russian, Asian, Mexican, and New Mexican cuisines during stints in Santa Fe and the Hamptons, and sous chef Chris Seyersdahl (Nopa, Precita Park Café), pan-Asian eclecticism means a mix and match of Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and market-dictated Northern California ingredients. The menu changes frequently enough so that if something calls to you one night, you’d better go for it while you have the chance. That something calling might be roasted squid stuffed with rice, sausage, and guanciale and lacquered with sake white soy, or a “banh boy po mi” sandwich of fish, squid, and kimchi.

Everything we ordered on three visits in March and April was beautifully presented on black ceramics, and, from the salty-oily shishito peppers to the grilled bok choy in lemon-anchovy dressing to the lemongrass meatballs and the texturally perfect (blue) crabcake, the flavor balances (“authentic” or not) and execution were spot-on. Only a few dishes suffered from minor missteps. The Thai chili ranch dressing on the pleasingly crisp and bright little gems salad was watery and bland. The expertly battered and fried green tomatoes—frying is a consistent specialty of the kitchen—tasted like it was cardboard seasoned. The smear of yuzu kosho tartar sauce added drama to the plate but little to the crabcake. Robin’s burger, ordered well done, arrived on the rare side of medium. And the wine pours were noticeably inconsistent, although maybe we noticed because our waiter brought a generous, complementary glass after a tremendously long gap between courses one night. The timing and accuracy of delivery from the kitchen was a persistent issue, especially when business picked up, which it always did, about an hour or so after Blind Tiger opened, which brings us to …

Happy hour! Blind Tiger has two—“early bird” from 5 to 7 p.m. and “late night” from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.—and they just might be the best in town, what with about 15 discounted snacks and small plates, including $1 oysters, and a buck off selected beers, wines, and house cocktails.

Which brings us to bar manager Liam Gilmore’s audacious experiments with spirits and such. Many of the 11 custom drinks tipped too far to the tiki side for me, with names like Mint Choco Monk-Shake, Havana GoGo #3 (served in a coconut), Chango Tranquilo (mezcal, guava, grenadine, lime), and Jabberwocky (kind of a grapefruit margarita with Thai chili, ruby port, and cherries). If I want the sweetness of coconut or melon, I’ll take the one dessert on offer—Taiwanese snow ice. So I stuck closer to my personal (whiskey) sweet spot with the Oona O’Neill (made with rye, amaro, and kumquat bitters) and the B.T. Old Fashioned (bourbon, Diplomatico rum, reduced coconut water, and cocoa coffee bitters). It’s good to know I can always get something I want at Blind Tiger.

 

Blind Tiger

Pan-Asian/American. 2600 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-899-9694. Bites $3-$4, raw bar $2-$14, tapas $6-$15, happy hour tapas $1-$7, house cocktails $10-$15, beer $5-$7, wine $7-$17. Hours are 5 p.m.-11 p.m. (full bar until 2 a.m.) daily. www.blindtigeroakland.com. CCG$–$$$

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