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Blind Tiger serves great pizza in a space with a split personality 

The "Bolo" is a New York-style pizza, topped with extra-virgin olive oil, herbs, mozzarella, ricotta, savory pork and beef bolognese, freshly grated Parmesan and parsley. See photos: Blind Tiger Dishes Divine Pizza in Maplewood

Jennifer Silverberg

The "Bolo" is a New York-style pizza, topped with extra-virgin olive oil, herbs, mozzarella, ricotta, savory pork and beef bolognese, freshly grated Parmesan and parsley.

See photos: Blind Tiger Dishes Divine Pizza in Maplewood

When I walked into Blind Tiger, I though I'd wandered into the wrong door. I found myself standing in what looked like an empty concert venue — a wide dance floor yawned in front of me. To the right was a large stage with lights and speakers; to the far left, a bar lost in space. A friendly server promptly greeted me, led me to a seat in a small alcove with approximately ten tables and flipped on a nearby Mason jar light that gave some much-needed ambiance. Still, I couldn't help but feel that I was early for a performance that never ended up happening.

In retrospect, I suppose I shouldn't have been so shocked. Blind Tiger occupies the spot on the corner of Manchester and Sutton that was formerly the Jumpin' Jupiter cabaret and, in addition to operating as a restaurant, is a private-events space that has already established a robust business. As a former server who has moved my fair share of furniture, I get that constantly setting up and breaking down events is a pain. However, I assumed that veteran bar owner Mike McLaughlin (of the Crow's Nest and the Bleeding Deacon fame) would have performed some serious feng shui on the place to make it a little more like its namesake — a "blind tiger," the Prohibition-era term for a speakeasy. Some well-thought-out furniture, a curtain — anything to give the place the cozy, clandestine vibe that the name implies would have made the place seem less cavernous.

The fact that the atmosphere is so off is a shame, because Blind Tiger serves great food. I started with the smoked tomato soup, a rich and tangy San Marzano bisque topped with polenta croutons and American cheese. It was a playful yet refined take on the classic grilled-cheese-and-tomato-soup pairing. Another well-executed appetizer was the housemade giardiniera, a dish of assorted crunchy pickled vegetables, including carrots, cauliflower and fennel, infused with herbed vinegar and served with a few slices of griddled bread. This was a perfect appetizer — light but packed with mouthwatering flavor.

See photos: Blind Tiger Dishes Divine Pizza in Maplewood

I was less impressed with the chicken wings. They were prepared confit-style, and were so tender and juicy that the meat slid off the bone when I picked them up. However, despite the fact that they were broiled with a sambal (a southeast Asian chile condiment) and oregano butter, they lacked zip. Similarly, Blind Tiger's ribs were a bit flat. The tender St. Louis-cut ribs were braised in a bourbon marinara and served with creamy polenta. The marinara tasted like a pineapple tomato sauce — not a bad flavor profile, just lacking punch. The sauce needed some tang or heat, and there needed to be more of it.

The hand-tossed, New York-style pizza is where Blind Tiger excels. We tried three of the four specialty pies (there is also a build-your-own option), and they were all excellent. The "Bolo" was topped with a sausage and beef Bolognese sauce, and there was a generous amount of meat in every bite, finished with housemade ricotta. The "Soldier of Four-Cheese" was a beautiful marriage of pizza and cheesy garlic bread. The sage brown-butter base was topped with ricotta, mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano and American cheeses, then generously sprinkled with smoked garlic. Blind Tiger's signature pizza is the "Hog Mess," a mélange of pepperoni, salami, bacon and sausage with a spicy rib-braise sauce. The pizza sears with serious spice from jalapeños, pepperoncini, red peppers and smoked garlic. It could have been overwhelming, but the chunks of juicy pineapple gave a burst of refreshment when I was ready to cry "uncle."

The restaurant doesn't have a drink menu yet (which is, again, odd for a bar based on a speakeasy theme), but our accommodating server/bartender was willing to improvise. If his Manhattan and "Shirley Templeton" (an homage to the late Hollywood icon made from rye whiskey, lemon-lime soda and grenadine) foreshadow what is to come, Blind Tiger will easily make up for lost time whenever its cocktail list comes around.

Blind Tiger has great pizza, a bunch of whiskeys and a prime location, but feels like it's still grasping for an identity. Maybe the joke's on me, and there's a hidden doorway somewhere inside that leads to the real speakeasy. I just didn't know the password.

See photos: Blind Tiger Dishes Divine Pizza in Maplewood

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