498 Selby Ave., St. Paul; 290-2338
I STAYED AWAY from Chang O'Hara's for quite awhile, it's true. The place had a reputation in certain circles for being cloying in its zaniness; the old Irish-meets-Asian cuisine with a crash and a slide whistle. The very name Chang O'Hara's conjures up images of the soused sowing their "wild" oats. It only took one thing to turn me around: Chang's serves oysters on the half shell. More than that, they offer happy hour oysters from 4-6 p.m., every day, merrily inviting patrons to "order as many as you like at our cost." This is a place with its heart in the right place, and our visits there confirmed this without question.
Owner Gadbois and company have done an excellent job of retaining a sense of the neighborhood's history, salvaging parts and pieces from local sites that have fallen by the wayside. The bar is especially impressive--a solid, comfortable place to lean over and hang on to, assembled with American black walnut, Philippine mahogany, birch, antique marble, and a salvaged garage door taken from a Summit Avenue mansion. The Asian theme gets played out in a mild way, with a dragon medallion here, an outdoor pagoda-style bar there, a red sash tacked to the ceiling. But the best features are undoubtedly the simple windows in front that stretch up to the ceiling, giving the pub an open feeling (not to mention access to excellent street watching).
The food is excellent, with unique menus brimming with original recipes. Of course, there's no need to go on about the raw oysters we ate; that would be cruel, baiting those of you who crave them. Suffice it to say that they're fresh daily, wonderfully plump and succulent, and properly served over ice with a biting cocktail sauce and fresh lemon. The virtue of some of the other appetizers--call them bar food with a twist--is less apparent, and perhaps best avoided by those with sensitive stomachs. The rest of you can heft your pick, as each item seems heavier than the last. Let's see, there's the hot artichoke dip, broiled with melted Parmesan cheese and served with crackers ($6.95); onions tempura, battered onions served with hot mustard and sweet and sour sauce ($4.95); lamb meat balls with bread and butter; Hoison BBQ ribs, served with blue cheese; and, my favorite, rumaki, described on the menu as "plump chicken livers and crisp water chestnuts wrapped with bacon, deep fried, and served with spicy teriyaki sauce, celery, and blue cheese dip" ($5.95).
We chose the chimaki, which is the rumaki made with chicken "nuggets" instead of chicken livers ($5.95). My friend and I sat silently gazing at the plate: glossy bundles of deep-fried bacon filled with chicken on a skewer, accompanied by big pools of blue cheese and teriyaki sauce studded with hot pepper flakes. Delicious and disgusting all at once, just like you'd imagine it to be. I'd say stick to the soups and salads before dinner. The black bean soup we tried, thick and well seasoned, garnished with a spoon of rich sour cream and a handful of fresh chives ($2.95/$3.95), was excellent, as was the Marco Polo salad, an entrée-sized portion of romaine greens, sprouts, and Asian vegetables with lots of lemon, garlic, and homemade croutons, all topped with juicy, sizzling pieces of spiced chicken ($7.95).
We split an order of poached salmon, the best I've had in ages, perfectly poached, covered with a lush dill-bearnaise sauce, and served with fresh, garlic-dressed salad greens, crisp vegetable succotash, and new roasted potatoes encrusted with herbs ($13.95). We couldn't have been happier. I don't know what happened to the Irish-Asian theme; I heard that they used to be more experimental, serving soda bread with stir fry and other mismatched items. It's fine with me that they don't, as the menu seems interesting enough as is: Someday we'll go back for what sounds like the ultimate in bar food--the imperial fondue, featuring your own table wok filled with vegetable bullion and whatever ingredients your table chooses ($3.95 per person).
The service was extremely personable and helpful, with one waitress reaching a zenith level of graciousness when she troubled herself to change our glasses when she felt that perhaps our ice had melted down too much. Such friendly graces and delicious dishes ensure Chang O'Hara's a top place in the hallowed halls of St. Paul pubs.
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