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Keep calm and order udon

Japan knows how to do winter right.

Take onsens, for example. These steamy hot tubs full of natural minerals reinvigorate the senses when snow has made fingers and toes numb. Udon serves a similar function. On a cold day, thick noodles—chunky like yarn in a woolen scarf—soaked in a bowl of rich umami broth bring my body back to life.

Something about the post-holiday slump always gets me dreaming about the snowy mountains of Hokkaido. I’ve never been, but the promise of glowy light from rice paper lanterns and warm, nourishing soup is a pleasant space for my mind to hide out until spring arrives.

This brings me to Shema Sushi. The slightest chill in the air draws me to this calming sanctuary tucked away in the East End on Alexander Street.

To be clear, it has no tie to Hokkaido. Unlike other sushi spots that cover their rolls in sauces and garnishes—which I enjoy from time to time—this restaurant focuses on simple, elegantly executed Japanese dishes. It offers creative rolls and sashimi as well as traditional cooked entrees. Shema’s chef and owner,Young Choi, trained in Japanese sushi techniques before working at establishments in Washington DC.

Located in the Medical Arts Building across from Ox and Stone, the space feels serene once you enter.The walls and tables have a golden wood hue, which gives the restaurant an attractive Scandinavian minimalist vibe. Ledges around the seating areas showcase lovely functional objects, like wooden shoji lamps and eclectic ceramic sake cups.

And if you’re in a down mood, I highly recommend taking a look at the signs. The staff takes care to illustrate the specials, like tempura cheesecake or spicy diced octopus, with colorful markers, and they’re very cute.

My winter warming ritual involves ordering miso soup ($3) and genmaicha ($4), green tea with roasted brown rice. Once the sensation in my fingers returns, I’m ready to take on bigger decisions, like whether to order sake.

Shema has an incredible selection ranging from sweet and milky to dry and beer-like. My server, Tiffany, suggests the Yuzu Sparkling, a bubbly and dry sake that reminded me of seltzer. “I recommend this one to everyone,” she says.

Then comes the question of appetizers: crispy gyoza ($7) or something more inspired like the uni and scallop bite ($18), which is wheels of lemon, topped with scallop sashimi, briny fresh uni, and a dollop of salmon roe?

On this visit, I landed on the latter, and I ordered some fried takoyaki ($10), just because. It’s a pleasantly springy savory pancake bite studded with diced octopus.. The dark, tangy condiment drizzled on top reminds me of the barbecue sauce from McDonald’s, and it makes me feel happy and nostalgic.

Finally, the main event: the udon. Shema has many noodle soups to choose from, including ramen and soba. Sometimes I’ll go with the shoyu ramen ($14), which has a hearty soy sauce base and slices of braised Japanese pork belly.

Tomas Flint 585 Shema Sushi 1014

Takoyaki—octopus with takoyaki sauce and seaweed powder

But today I was craving the nabeyaki udon ($18). It’s one of my favorites because it comes in an individual earthenware donabe pot, which seems special, even a little ceremonial. The dashi broth is pipng hot, and crispy shrimp tempura, slices of shiitake mushroom, pink fish cake, and greens float on the surface. Is it weird that I want to climb in?

I find it impossible not to slurp the plump, chewy noodles. It’s part of the joy of enjoying this dish.

If you’re treating yourself to a solo date, which I’m often known to do, you can stop there. But for a bigger group, the sushi boats ($65 for sushi or $80 for sushi and sashimi) are great for sharing—and the oversized lacquered tray is impressive. It’s an assortment of nigiri, seaweed salad, and two rolls, a green Caterpillar roll (eel with cucumber, crab, and avocado) and a red Phoenix roll (shrimp tempura and cucumber inside with spicy tuna, fish eggs, and spicy mayo). The portions are generous and, judging by the beautiful crimson of the tuna, the fish is high quality.

Winter is unavoidable in our part of the world. By incorporating a few rituals into our lives, it’s possible to endure another cycle of it in stride. Sip tea. Drink some sake if that’s your thing. Bathe your insides in broth. Find a local spot that transports you somewhere else. Who knows, you might even begin to relish the chilly air.

Shema Sushi 277 Alexander St., Rochester 325-6555




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