Established in 1979, Tachibana, the oldest Japanese restaurant in the St. Louis area, is making a major change: Effective immediately, the eatery is changing its name to Ocha and is under new management. 

But what hasn't changed--as experienced during our recent visit--is the restaurant's commitment to serving an authentic Southeast Asian experience. The space was another example of a mundane strip mall facade masking an interesting interior. In the middle of the main dining room was a wooden temple-like structure, raised several feet above the main floor, that housed a seating area built by carpenters with materials flown in from Japan. Surrounding this were other tables as well as a traditional sushi counter. Overall, the effect was fairly striking, like entering a separate restaurant altogether.

The menu also featured Thai cuisine--another favorite--so we opted to try items from both countries. A cup of Tom Yum Kung ($5), started the meal off right. It was a fine example of this traditional hot and sour Thai soup, full of plump shrimp and chunks of mushroom. To follow, an order of Gyoza ($5), five tender pot stickers. That should have been enough for the apps, but then we spied the Yaki Ika ($9), a Japanese grilled squid dish, and had to give it a try. The firm, mild pieces of squid were set off by a sweet ginger sauce. Both the dumplings and the squid came with a tasty sweet cabbage and carrot slaw on the side.

We'd been hitting the sushi pretty hard of late and so decided to forgo the array of rolls and range a bit further among the menu offerings, looking for something out of the ordinary. The Spicy Frog Legs ($14), designated a House Special, was obviously a must-try. The legs themselves were lightly battered and surprisingly delicate in flavor (yes, they did taste a lot like chicken). But they were prepared in a fiery stir-fry that included garlic, chili, basil, onion, bell peppers and eggplant that provided a kaleidoscope of flavors and textures to complement the main ingredient. The Tachibana menu also had an interesting assortment of curries to choose from, and we settled on the Panang Curry ($9) with shrimp (also available with beef, chicken, pork, tofu or mixed vegetables). This fragrant, zesty Thai favorite combined sweet coconut milk, basil, bell peppers and peanut sauce that resulted in a delicious balance of sweet and heat. A couple of Thai lagers--Chang ($5) and Singha ($5)-- helped quench the fire from these two entrees nicely.

To wrap things up, we tried a serving of Fried Banana ($4), with honey sauce on the side. These small pieces of banana were enveloped in a flaky batter and had none of the expected sweetness normally associated with this fruit. Instead, the consistency and flavor was more reminiscent of a sweet potato. Interesting, but pretty one-dimensional and bland without the help of the honey.

In addition to the fine food, Ocha was very affordable, and service was first-rate. It took us a while to get there, but we'll be back soon.

 Ocha, 12967 Olive St., 434-3455, tachibanastl.com

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