I'm a little bit more in love with sushi chef Chris Kinjo after learning that the MF in his restaurant MF Sushi stands for "magic fingers," or perhaps even something else. After experiencing his omakase multi-course tasting menu three years ago in a divey strip center off Westheimer, I was on pins and needles to see how he would charm in the space designed just for him at 1401 Binz, which opened in July of 2015. My biggest takeaway from that night two years ago was Kinjo’s larger-than-life personality. He laughed easily and heartily, all the while hand-delivering us bite after bite of simple, strong flavors. It was the first time I’d tasted sushi made with this level of dedication to the craft. To be honest, I haven’t tasted sushi quite like that since.
Kinjo and his brother Alex turned heads nationwide in 2008 with MF Buckhead in Atlanta, Georgia. MF Buckhead quickly came to be regarded as one of the best sushi restaurants in the country. Sadly, Kinjo was forced to file for bankruptcy in 2011, but after relocating to Houston in 2012, he rebounded by opening MF Sushi. The restaurant made waves quickly within the food community until a fire forced it to close its doors. Kinjo continued to operate out of the strip-mall location, performing omakase tasting menus for a select few each night. Reservations were hard to come by. Luckily for Houston, he bounced back bigger than before in 2015.
Kinjo’s Museum District digs are far more suited to the chef’s purist mentality and delivery. The experience begins as you walk through the large, lightly marred, wood door. The interior is sleek and wooden. Every staff member you pass greets and acknowledges your presence. The breathtaking backdrop behind the sushi bar features backlit mountainous curves masked by thin white linen curtains that fall seamlessly. Simple and pure.
The menu is impressive in its detail if not a little intimidating. The small print in its entirety makes it just a little hard to navigate, but on this night, we were instantly guided by our knowledgeable server. In fact, it didn't matter which server dropped the food; each dish was promptly described with precision and ease.
We started off with the server’s recommendation, the eye-popping avocado ball. Shimmers of gold leaf flickered above the intricately plated sphere of avocado that covered a small base of spicy, rather overpowering tuna.
The next dish was an obvious crowd pleaser, the baked lobster tempura — lobster, crisp tempura, aioli — served warm. I knew I wanted something crisp, so I was worried about a "baked tempura technique,” but it was wonderfully executed. Among the tempura texture, the dish was laden with crunchy blocks of celery and oodles of tobiko. A hint of scallion enhanced the warm comfort of the dish. We were licking the plate.
Each time I noticed the music, I was delighted. Thoughtful melodies, whether by orchestral strings or dance pop crooners, melded effortlessly into the beautiful setting of place and food. Our reservation was for 6 p.m. on a Monday and by 7:30 p.m., the dining room was popping. It’s clear that MF Sushi, after being open for two years, is still widely popular despite new competition from Roka Akor, Kukuri and the like.
We ordered another of our servers’ favorites, the shishito peppers tempura. Shishito peppers are now commonly seen on menus and I've tried them all, from Provisions to Izakaya. Kinjo shows his art in the ability to tempura ever so lightly while maintaining a stone-crisp exterior. The batter allowed the delicate heat of the fun-to-eat shishito to shine.
Of course, we had the seared Wagyu. I remember chef Kinjo's epic 20th course on that omakase tasting two years ago in which he torched each piece of Wagyu in his bare hands, all the while laughing like the Santa Claus of sushi. To me, that is passion for your craft.
The lightly tarred Wagyu melted perfectly over the artfully packed sushi rice. I would have preferred one more pinch of salt, but the dab of Dijon and Thai chile stimulated in the meanwhile. I'd like to note how perfect the rice was. It was tight enough to pick up, but not in the least "too" formed, and each kernel represented the skill that’s been handed down from sushi master to sushi master.
Other notable flavors were the spritely ponzu on the yellowtail sashimi. I’ve never tasted a ponzu that made me sit up in my seat. The flavor was that gripping. Kinjo's discipline is noticed in his subtleties. Soy sauce was not left on the table, but poured elegantly by our server. I wasn't sure if we even needed it, because the flavors stood so well together.
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At the moment, the dessert menu is word-of-mouth owing to the lack of a pastry chef. That's a smart move on the chef's part, I think, because it's best to keep it simple, and what better way to end a satisfying meal than with an assortment of cold mochi?
I smelled the first tableside hibachi pass by just as our check landed. In the time it took us to pay, three had passed by. I wished so bad for my hunger to return in that moment, but was resigned to the “we will have to get that next time.”
According to Kinjo, it takes at least 15 years to be able to make good sushi. For him, he would have to grow the rice, catch the fish and combine them all at the right moment to make perfect sushi. I’m confident that Houstonians are happy to wait in the meantime.
MF sushi is open seven days a week from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Reservations are recommended. If you're lucky enough to catch Chris Kinjo on the line, be sure to sit for the omakase. MF Sushi offers sushi, Japanese dishes and a multi-course omakase experience.