An MF Perfect Nigiri: Trust the Chef at MF Sushi
'I'd forgotten how good the sushi rice is here," marveled my dining companion on a recent Saturday evening as he popped a perfect bite of madai (sea bream) nigiri dusted with powder-fine Himalayan sea salt into his mouth. "The rice grains have such a great texture, and they're so well seasoned," he opined.
It was my third and his fifth time dining at MF Sushi, chef Chris Kinjo and his brother Alex's new restaurant located in a modest strip mall on the outskirts of the Galleria area. We were about one-third of the way through an omakase (chef's tasting) dinner that had begun with three courses of jaw-droppingly fresh, make-you-swoon-with-pleasure sashimi.
That night, Kinjo, a famed sushi chef whose MF Buckhead restaurant in Atlanta was named one of the Top 10 Sushi Spots of 2009 by Bon Appétit magazine, started us off with a sashimi appetizer of shima aji with yuzu kosho (Japanese striped jack with pickled yuzu paste), and so perfect was the execution that I would have been happy to end the meal right then and there.
Delicate, precisely cut pieces of fish were spread fanlike on a ridged plate resembling the inside of a clam shell, the slices arranged a uniform width apart, with the pink-tipped corner edges contrasting beautifully against a well-preserved silvery film of fish skin.
When I took a bite, the fish itself was firm, supple and mildly flavored until the pea-sized dollop of dark green yuzu kosho hit my senses, giving off a quick burst of slightly spicy, aromatic citrus. I ate each exquisitely formed piece slowly, reverently, absorbing the splendid purity of each morsel.
I didn't believe it was possible to top the first course, but then Kinjo handed us a plate of Ora King Salmon from New Zealand, thick-cut rectangles of sashimi created with such meticulousness that when he arranged them side by side, the individual pieces sat flush against each other, coalescing to form a seamless square whole. Eating it was like taking a puzzle apart piece by piece, each bite of the silky, buttery fish punctuated by an exciting zing of wasabi relish.
And then there were the thinly sliced cuts of rosy, pink-fleshed kinmedai (golden eye snapper), so clean and pure that they leaped to life with nothing more than a few slightly bitter, fragrant shavings of green lime zest.
To truly appreciate MF Sushi, you must abandon the normal rules of dining. Forget about menus and ordering what you think you want. Be sure to reserve a place at the 14-seat sushi bar, and when the server asks if you will be joining them for an omakase, just say "Yes."
Omakase means "trust chef." When you agree to an omakase experience, you enter into this sort of informal contract with the sushi chef. In return for your trust, it's understood, he will do his best and offer you the best of everything in the house.
One night, for instance, a serving of o-toro (fatty tuna) sashimi was of a quality so remarkable that one of my persnickety friends, the guy who's always complaining about this or that, could not stop gushing: "The only time I've ever had o-toro this good was at Nobu in New York City, where it cost me $20 per piece."
Other nights, it's the nigiri sushi that shines. In fact, it's Kinjo's mastery of nigiri sushi that separates him from his peers. There is an art to the way in which he makes his rice, a craftsman's skill that takes years of practice to perfect. Kinjo himself will be the first to admit that he's still working at it every day.
With a few slaps of the hands and twists of the wrist, he fashions a clump of sushi rice that's full of air, each grain clinging almost defiantly to the next, like fingers that are barely touching. He tops each mound of rice with a slice of fish, then bastes it with a nikiri glaze made of soy and mirin. The result is a nigiri sushi so fragile in composition that you can actually see the air deflate if you let it sit too long.
"Just one bite!" he'll command if he sees you try to dip it in soy sauce. He makes each piece of nigiri so that it can be enjoyed immediately and as is. Then he stands back and watches your facial expressions, looking for signs of how you've received his food. I'll close my eyes briefly and murmur incoherent sounds like "mmm," reveling in the power of a flawlessly carved sliver of fish and the way that it intermingles with the warm kernels of seasoned rice, wasabi and soy to produce a feel-good endorphin rush.
This repeats itself for a heart-pumping procession of some of the most delectable nigiri sushi you'll ever have the pleasure of tasting, progressing from leaner fish such as the prized akamutsu (rosy sea bass) from Japan, a silky madai, a smoky inada (baby yellowtail) or a crisp kanpachi (almaco jack); to the fattier, more buttery pieces of hamachi (yellowtail) belly, salmon belly and chu-toro (mid fatty tuna); to the richest and most decadent cuts of beautifully marbled o-toro or the textured golden mound of grade-A Santa Barbara uni (sea urchin).
I've had as few as six and as many as nine different nigiri courses in one omakase sitting at MF Sushi. Even so, I have yet to try Kinjo's famed triggerfish, in which he sautés the fish liver to create a special sauce. His specialty fish come and go, requiring frequent visits to catch all the different items that may be available for only a day or two before they sell out.
I was lucky to be there for a three-part live-lobster course during my most recent dinner visit. It started with caviar foam-topped braised sea urchin over freshly poached lobster, which was followed by an uni-and-lobster chawanmushi (Japanese egg custard), finishing off with a positively divine lobster miso soup with an essence so rich it reminded me of bouillabaisse or lobster bisque.
He'll go until you tell him to stop, continuing for 12 to 20 courses, or more, if you're so inclined. Whatever the case, each omakase dinner will be of a kind that you won't likely forget.
If you don't have the time or the funds or you can't get a reservation for his omakase dinner, MF Sushi is still better, quality-wise, than your average sushi restaurant around town — as long as Kinjo is in the house. On Tuesdays and Fridays, Kinjo gets his shipments of exotic fish from Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, with supplies of bluefin tuna, live uni, live scallop and others arriving on other days.
It's when Kinjo's not around that things begin to falter. During a lunch date with a girlfriend one Thursday afternoon, when both Kinjo brothers were noticeably absent, our à la carte order of hamachi belly and kanpachi nigiri bore little resemblance to Kinjo's masterful renditions.
The fish was cut decidedly smaller, the rice cold and packed tight into tasteless balls — I ate the fish and pushed the rice aside. An order of bluefin o-toro sashimi fared better in terms of taste but lost points for lack of uniform shape and placement on the plate, where the pieces lay droopily against each other, looking messy and unkempt.
A grilled eel special from the robatayaki grill made a better impression. We were extremely happy with the three large, 4-inch chunks of piping hot, slightly charred eel with freshly sliced cucumber and fresh avocado, served with miso soup and a generously portioned green salad with ginger dressing. I would go back for that one alone.
On the whole, the restaurant is new enough that I expect these little kinks to eventually iron themselves out. In the meantime, Houston should be thankful that the sushi darlings of Atlanta's affluent Buckhead scene chose Houston for their new venture. When Kinjo presided over omakase dinners at his flagship MF Buckhead in Atlanta around 2009, patrons were paying $250 to $350 each to experience his elaborate 16- to 20-course meals.
At the time, Kinjo was busy running three restaurants and offered his dinners only once or twice a month. Here in Houston, Kinjo takes center stage daily, wielding his $1,000 forged Japanese knife with the same expert precision.
It's not only thrilling to watch, but a culinary ride worth every penny of its $75-and-up price tag.
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