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$350 sushi steals critic's stars

"Discrete moments of pure elation" took him to another frontier.

Luxurious flesh left him flushed. There was talk of surrender, of feeling like putty in the master's hands.

Sure sounds like the earth moved for him.

The blushing fellow is not an overheated caller to Talk Sex with Sue Johanson, but Frank Bruni, the restaurant critic of the New York Times, waxing about one of the priciest food experiences in the city. Masa, in the restaurant-rich Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, "belongs in the thinly populated pantheon of New York's most stellar restaurants," Bruni wrote last week.

His four-star rating _ rarer than canonization by the pope _ kicked off a wave of commentary in the restaurant industry, on the Internet and among folks who plan vacations around restaurant reservations. Not everyone agrees with Bruni, and some even question his qualifications to make such grand statements. He took over the reviewing post last year after serving as the New York Times' Rome bureau chief.

Still others were eager to experience Masa, even at the prix fixe rate of $350 before tax (18 percent), tip (make that 20 percent) and drink (how about a $100 bottle of sake). It's difficult to get out the door for less than $1,000 for two, lunch or dinner.

Still, a four-star rating from the New York Times is delicious news in the restaurant world, and foodies are intrigued.

"Masa fits in just fine as a four-star restaurant, because it's at the pinnacle of a serious cuisine, namely sushi. Four stars means "extraordinary,' and by nearly all accounts that's exactly what Masa is offering," wrote OakApple on eGullet.com, a Web site that attracts food commentary from around the world.

Over at Chowhound.com, there was discussion about whether raw fish could ever be worth a second mortgage. Some wondered if perhaps Bruni got special treatment as a critic.

"I met the guy and could pick him out in a crowd, so it shouldn't be that hard for a restaurant owner to know who he is, too. Unless he goes in drag or something," wrote one blogger.

Masa, which has just 26 seats and requires a credit card just for reservations, joins an exclusive club deemed darn close to perfect by New York Times critics. The other five members have a French flavor _ Le Bernardin, Per Se, Alain Ducasse, Jean Georges and Daniel. The last Japanese restaurant to win fours stars was Hatsuhana in 1983.

Pristine, precise Japanese food, sushi especially, is the antithesis of complex French cuisine, which makes the four-star rating all the more interesting. Bruni's florid compliments may have loosened the stranglehold on the idea that fine dining must have a French accent.

Chef Masayoshi Takayama opened Masa in February, after shuttering his lauded Beverly Hills restaurant, Ginza Sushiko. When you join him at the sushi bar, which is preferable to the tables, says Bruni, you'll be handed no menu. Takayama determines what you will eat. After all, he's the one who has flown in blowfish liver from Japan and hand-picked bay scallops from New England.

While Bruni is arguably the most-read critic to gush about Masa, he is not the first. Interim critic Amanda Hesser was effusive last summer. Bad-boy chef Anthony Bourdain, author of the dishy Restaurant Confidential, quivered on eGullet in March.

"Even if you make $300 dollars a week as a rookie prep cook, I urge you to go," Bourdain wrote. "Go! (Forget) Con Ed. Let 'em shut off the cable. Who cares if Junior needs bail money? The landlord can wait. Go. Now."

In St. Petersburg, the four-star ripple was felt by Lonni Whitchurch, who was preparing to open her fifth Lonni's Sandwiches Etc. location, this one in Feather Sound.

Her sushi-loving husband was ready to pack his bags for a New York excursion after reading Bruni's review. But Whitchurch, whose idol, Thomas Keller, also has a four-star restaurant in the Time Warner Center, was not sure she appreciated sushi enough to take the plunge.

Would she spend the bucks at Keller's French Laundry in Napa Valley or Per Se at Time Warner? Oh, yes, especially for a special occasion.

"It's whatever a person's vice is," she said.

The price of a Masa meal is breathtaking until you compare it to other entertainment for which stratospheric excess has become the norm. Club seats for the Super Bowl in Jacksonville are $600 each _ face value. On eBay, tickets are easily topping $1,000. Prime orchestra seats for the Metropolitan Opera can cost more than $200. And you can't even taste the music.

"The common man thinks $350 and goes through the roof, but that's below the going rate at super luxury restaurants," says Steven A. Shaw, executive director of the Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, which maintains eGullet.com.

"It is accepted in society that people act like this about baseball and football but not food. And since you can watch the Super Bowl on TV, you don't even have the same argument," Shaw said.

Star-rating systems for restaurants are used by many publications, including Michelin, which gives three for tops, and Mobil, which gives five. (The St. Petersburg Times does not assign rankings to restaurants.)

"(The stars) are bigger than the critic, bigger than the paper," said Shaw, whose book Turning the Tables: Restaurants from the Inside Out will be published in August by HarperCollins. "They are a cultural reference point for the industry."

While researching his book, Shaw said he saw contracts between restauranteurs and chefs that promised bonuses if the chef could maintain the New York Times stars, and even more money if another star could be acquired.

Bruni's review, Shaw said, sends a signal to the industry that if a financier is willing to spend the money to develop a luxurious restaurant, no matter the cuisine, then the New York Times is willing reward it. Those stars can pack a restaurant and increase revenue and clout.

Masa has been closed for the holidays and reopens Jan. 11. A call to the restaurant Monday found openings for that night. Be warned, there is a $100 cancellation fee if you don't show up.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at

(727) 893-8586 or krietasptimes.com.

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