Monday, November 08, 2010

SOUNDING MORE LIKE ROME! Fla. restaurant adds fleshy fare to the menu

Nearly nude, Gabrielle Patchell remains still as people pluck sushi pieces off of her arms, legs and tummy.

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. — Gabrielle Patchell is a real dish.
The petite 5-foot-6 model lies on her back with her long, blond hair splayed out on a table like an Asian fan. Nearly nude but for a thong and strategically placed leaves and artificial blossoms, she remains stock-still as people pluck sushi pieces off of her arms, legs and tummy.

"She's my platter that I get to put my food on," says Brian Sung, sushi chef at Torch Bistro, Sushi and Martini Bar in Punta Gorda.

Long considered a sleepy little hamlet, Punta Gorda has joined the ranks of megacities such as New York, Los Angeles and Miami in serving so-called "naked sushi."

"I hope Punta Gorda is ready for it," quips Evelyn Keller, a North Fort Myers, Fla., resident who had stopped in for a more conventional dinner with friends.

Apparently it is.

The trio of chefs behind Torch — Shane Federici, Jason Bush and sushi-roller Sung — say they've booked at least one full-body sushi party a month since they opened in January. With models costing $100-$200 an hour, private parties can run $300-$400 depending on how many guests attend and how much food is ordered.

Torch also serves more Italian cuisine and American comfort food, but the sexy sushi presentation is what's attracting attention. A travel writer on ranked it second on a list of the "10 Most Outrageous Restaurants" around the world — between the No. 3 California eatery where patrons dine in the dark and the No. 1 in Japan where monkeys are the servers.

The practice formally known as nyotaimori is intended to celebrate female beauty — though male models also are available.

The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which inspects restaurants statewide, has no laws or license requirements regarding the preparation or serving of sushi.

"Current law does require that all food contact surfaces be smooth and easily cleaned," says DBPR spokeswoman Alexis Antonacci Lambert.

Torch's models shower with antibacterial soap and shave before they are made up, painted with Asian symbols and decorated with flowers. The process takes about 90 minutes.

Then, staffers carefully place volcano rolls and spicy tuna rolls on top of leaves or seaweed sheets on the models — the food doesn't actually touch their skin. Patrons sit around the table, plucking sushi with chopsticks, but aren't supposed to talk to the models.

It's nothing new to Patchell, the 24-year-old sushi model, gymnast and graduate student. She once served as the vessel for an ice cream sundae buffet. How does she manage to stay so still when she has lily pads pressed into her armpits? Yoga skills help.

"I concentrate," she says. "I don't hear the conversations going on."

Stuart Sanchez, 57, and his wife drove down from Sarasota, Fla., for the special public demonstration.

"It's fantastic," Stuart Sanchez says. "I'm so surprised to find it here."

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