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Chozu Bath and Tea Gardens

Approaching food as a path to enlightenment may sound strange indeed.

Yet meditating on a meal is the advice of many health and wellness experts. Eat slowly, mindfully, conscious of each bite, every flavor. You'll not only feel full faster and, therefore, eat less, but will derive greater pleasure from the simple acts of chewing and tasting.

A new Ashland tea house cultivates just such a philosophy. Chozu Bath and Tea Gardens brings traditional Japanese bath and tea culture to the town's railroad district. Treatments like massage and acupressure complement the spa's sauna, salt-water pools, steam rooms and water features. Chozu, according to the business Web site means "to become clear or serene with water."

Taking the waters isn't required to enjoy dishes prepared by macrobiotic chef Etsuko Jensen. But getting a taste of Jensen's food could prove a bit tricky. With its four tables, the tea room is positively tiny and does not accept reservations. Items are available to go but, of course, don't come with Chozu's austere, tranquil atmosphere.

A royal-blue kimono hung as art on one long wall, an iron kettle suspended from a long bamboo pole and wicker window shades complete the decor. Buds in miniature clay vases are as simple and elegant as sumi-e paintings.

Given the surroundings, my co-worker and I were somewhat surprised that orders are taken around the corner at a counter. But a free sample of kanten, a chilled, translucent custard cradling fresh strawberries, salved our annoyance.

We also discovered that some listed menu items were not available. Because the tea room is just getting started, inventory is on the small side, the server explained, apologizing.

So instead of offering choices for grains, broths and condiments on the sampler plate ($10.75), the restaurant chose for us. Having already tried the kanten, we also requested the trio of desserts ($4.50), which included two pastries and a traditional jellied bean paste.

Tea, of course, could not be passed up. Chozu serves five varieties of green tea ranging in price from $4.25 for a single serving of the quintessential matcha to $3.50 for a small pot of sencha, genmaicha or hojicha.

I yearned to see the tea house's preparation of matcha but was drawn to the near-magical presentation of jasmine rishi fairy tea, a hand-tied ball of leaves that opens in hot water to reveal a string of jasmine flowers. A single serving in a clear glass mug is $3.75. My co-worker ordered a similar tea featuring a red lily flower that releases gold osmanthus blossoms to the surface, also $3.75.

Our sampler plates arrived without delay, elegantly displayed in four individual white dishes on long black trays. I had expected cold food, but the savory rice with carrot and shiitake mushrooms was warm.

Flavors were simple and pure. The hijiki nitsuke, a melange of carrot and seaweed common to Japanese cuisine, tasted like ocean spray accented with bitter notes of sesame.

The burdock sauteed with shoyu soy sauce deepened the plate's savory sphere while the beautifully rolled seasonal greens — kale and bok choy, in this case — provided a crunchy, juicy injection of chlorophyll that my co-worker termed "as good as a wheat grass shot."

Sips of miso soup accented each bite. Unlike miso served in many other Japanese restaurants, this one didn't manipulate the taste buds with chemical-laden dashi granules. For that reason, some may find it a bit bland.

Because we asked our server to explain the vegetable pickle listed on the menu, she brought us a sample. The thinly shaved celery pressed with ginger and sea salt was a perfect palate cleanser before dessert.

Japanese desserts with their use of legumes may not sound like an indulgence here in the West. However, all were assuredly sweet but not cloyingly so.

The youkan, or jellied adzuki-bean paste was as smooth as ganache, if somewhat starchy. The omanju, containing a barely perceptible filling of lima beans and chestnuts, crumbled like a scone, pairing particularly well with the tea. The chakin shibori, a confection of sweet potato and chestnuts, was the most subtle.

If the meal sounds like a lot of vegetables and grains, that's precisely Chozu's specialty. Don't come expecting sushi and tempura. There isn't one meat dish on the menu. A la carte items are priced between $2.25 for the seasonal pickle to $3.50 for rice dishes.

Chozu Bath and Tea Gardens is at 832 A St., Ashland. Hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Call 552-0202.

— Sarah Lemon