Naked sushi comes to Clearwater bar

CLEARWATER — Chef David Keir looks out over the crowd in the dark, smoke-filled lounge, then slowly slides the model's black kimono off her body.

She's wearing the smallest of G-strings and tiny flower-shaped pasties. Slowly, she lies down on a small upraised stage.

Illuminated by an overhead light, Keir, 35, places bamboo leaves covered with bright sushi rolls on her nearly naked body. First on her right upper leg, then her left thigh and, finally, her chest.

A line of customers, almost 30 deep, waits in eager anticipation for the free sushi and the accompanying show.

A glittering disco ball above him spins as a mixture of hip-hop, techno and club music pulsates through the Dirty Martini.

Two women dressed in skimpy school girl outfits dance on either side of the model, gyrating with serpentine skill.

Clutching metal tongs, Keir plucks a piece of sushi from a long narrow leaf, then places it onto a small, black plastic plate held by a patron.

Welcome to naked sushi.

• • •

The practice, started hundreds of years ago in Japan as part of the geisha culture, has rapidly spread around the world.

But it was never done publicly in Florida until four months ago, when Keir brought it to the Dirty Martini, an upscale Clearwater bar along U.S. 19 where bottles of Grey Goose vodka run $195.

Keir said his goal was to enhance his catering business, Bushi Sushi.

Soon he'll move to The Flo Lounge, another fancy club on Ulmerton Road in Clearwater, where naked sushi will be offered the first Tuesday of every month.

A 1998 graduate of New York's Culinary Institute of America, Keir started hosting private naked sushi parties in college. After graduation, he took the show on the road to Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

"I love art — music, paintings and poetry — and the best way for me to convey my art is in food," says Keir, a Vietnam native who was adopted by a New York family when he was five. "I was tired of putting sushi on a plate, so I took it to that next step."

By 2000, he found his way to Safety Harbor, where he opened Universal Meko, but it closed in 2002. "Because of the bad economy," he says.

He started a catering business and continued hosting private naked sushi parties. He advertised for models on Craigslist. Some he met at parties, and some were even girlfriends. Keir's models can make up to $500 a show, including tips, which he splits with them.

The blonde model from the Dirty Martini tells the St. Petersburg Times she's proud of what she does, not ashamed to be almost naked.

She won't give her name, though, and will only say she attends college in Tampa Bay.

• • •

Most historians agree naked sushi — Nyotaimori (Japanese for "female body presentation") — started several hundred years ago in the geisha culture.

Critics say it eventually became less about the art and more about titillation. Now, even in the country where it originated, the event is conducted privately or in the red light districts.

Naked sushi — banned in China because officials say it's unhygienic and infringes on women's rights — made its way to the United States in the early 1990s. It started in California and was featured in the movie Rising Sun, which starred Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes.

It frequently spurs controversy. In 2003, human rights protesters shut down naked sushi at Seattle's Bonzai Pub and Bistro.

Protesters stood outside the pub, telling customers it was demeaning to women. The outrage forced the bistro to eventually stop the practice.

Locally, police have checked for violations and didn't find any.

And officials with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which licenses restaurants, say Keir hasn't violated health requirements.

Even Mayor Frank Hibbard, who convinced Hooters' owners in 2006 to reword a sexually suggestive billboard, says he's letting this one go. He says little about the event other than, "I wouldn't eat sushi off anyone's body."

• • •

Keir defends his practice, calling it "my expression of art."

"Every time Picasso had a girl pose nude in one of his paintings, was that demeaning? No, I don't think it was," he says.

Inside the Dirty Martini, the patrons, half of them women, agree.

By almost 11 p.m., the event is coming to a close and the model is tired. Lying flat, even in 20 minute intervals, has taken a toll.

Still, the Dirty Martini is packed with close to 130 people. No one is looking at the three TV screens. All eyes are still on the 20-something woman.

"It's very avant garde, a little controversial, but everything innovative is going to be," says Paul Puzzanghera, 40, a Clearwater attorney. "But it's chic."

His wife of 18 years agrees.

"There's a sense of class to it," says Rose, 41, a nurse.

No one hoots, no one hollers and no one touches the model.

Nearby, Mike Scott, the lounge's 45-year-old "official mood adjuster," or bouncer, watches closely. He stands 6 feet 5 and weighs 375 pounds. So far, he says, "there haven't been any problems."

That's probably because the event is nothing more than a tease, patrons say. The only thing guaranteed is free sushi.

"You'll always have people who hate what they don't know," Keir says. "But if they see what I do, how tastefully it's done, then I think they'll have a better understanding of it."

Times staff researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

Naked sushi comes to Clearwater bar 06/27/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 4, 2008 1:34pm]

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