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Chozu Bath and Tea Gardens

As winter warmers go, tea is perfectly adequate. For some, an alcoholic drink is more in keeping with the season. Served warm, saké can satisfy on both fronts.

Acknowledging that certain customers want something with a little more kick, Chozu Bath and Tea Gardens in Ashland recently obtained its liquor license to serve saké, in addition to the eatery's array of specialty teas. To that end, Chozu owner Ilene Rubinstein restructured her tea house menu to complement the Japanese beverage fermented from rice.

But Chozu isn't typical of local Japanese restaurants. No tempura-fried anything, no bento boxes and no sushi — yet. Rubenstein intends to serve sushi on Friday and Saturday evenings, but the staff isn't fully trained, an employee said. Until Chozu gets its sushi rolling, the individual protein and vegetable components are served atop rice.

Guests will still find plenty to tempt the palate: miso soup, seaweed salad, shumai dumplings, soba and udon. There's also the more unusual "onsen tamago," or "spa egg," poached in its shell; ikura daikon, salmon roe served over rice with daikon radish "snowflakes" and monkfish liver, a Japanese delicacy.

In a nod to the popularity of tapas and small plates, Chozu's portions more closely resemble appetizers, most priced between $3 and $6. A salad of silken tofu, soba and greens is $9, hot soba or udon noodles with vegetables and shiitake mushrooms, $7.

Serving a few animal proteins is a sharp departure from Chozu's previous macrobiotic menu that offered several choices under the categories of "grains," "broths" and "condiments," as well as a few traditional Japanese pastries made of beans, sweet potato and chestnuts. Rubenstein did retain the matcha mushi pan, or green tea bread, that proved popular with customers.

No longer so oriented toward health food, Chozu's menu fills the bill for light snacks, whether the tea room is patrons' sole destination, or they plan to enjoy the spa's saltwater pools and sauna. Fresh from a soothing soak, I was in the mood for a cleansing dose of green tea with a few tidbits to nibble.

The single serving of matcha ($4.25) — premium leaves from the youngest plants — ground to a fine powder seemed appropriate. My mom and sister ordered a pot of the jasmine dragon pearl tea ($3.75). On previous visits, I'd enjoyed Chozu's flower teas ($3.75), hand-tied buds that open when immersed in hot water.

Because preparing matcha is an important ritual in Japanese tea ceremonies, I had hoped to see mine whisked at the table. However, the server did offer to steep the dragon pearl tea twice more after we finished the first pot.

A fan of seaweed salads, I was eager to try Chozu's with its addition of cucumber in a house-made sauce ($4). If I hadn't indulged so heavily in eggs at breakfast, the spa egg would have been my next choice. Instead, I dithered between the salmon roe ($5) and monkfish liver ($6), finally deciding on the latter. My mom couldn't pass up the prawn dumplings.

The food arrived almost immediately with small plates for sharing. As expected, Chozu's seaweed salad bore no trace of the green food coloring common in many restaurants' take on the dish. A rich counterpoint to the vinegary salad, the monkfish liver resembled paté. Not at all fishy, it had a faint taste of saltwater lightening the liver flavor accented with sesame seeds.

The dumplings bore no innovation that would distinguish them from the frozen ones at Asian markets, but they were tasty enough, slightly crispy with a spicy finish when dipped in warm ponzu sauce drizzled with sesame oil.

For dessert, we ordered red bean- and mango-flavored mochi ice cream ($4). Newcomers to this Japanese specialty may find the sticky, elastic confection made from rice-gluten that encases the filling a bit disconcerting. For the less adventurous, Chozu serves green tea ice cream.

Open for lunch and dinner, the tea house was virtually empty on a recent Saturday evening but — with just four tables — could fill up quickly. Signs indicate that both the tea room and bath gardens foster serenity, so Chozu probably isn't the place to take your raucous holiday party. For a quiet evening with just a couple of friends, however, Chozu provides an intimate, soothing atmosphere.

— Sarah Lemon