Restaurant Reviews

The Food at MF Sushi Is Superb, but the Experience Can Be Weird

MF Sushi offers some of the best sushi and sashimi in Houston, but it would be a tragedy to overlook the glorious hamachi kama, or grilled yellowtail collar. Collar, whether fish, lamb or beef, is a supple cut of meat too often overlooked by diners, so it’s good to see this little-known treasure on the menu. The firm surface of the yellowtail collar, artfully tattooed with minimalist black grill lines, easily gives way with a fork to the glistening, oily flakes of fish underneath. Sixteen dollars seems a small price to pay for experiencing this treasure of the ocean.

MF Sushi is open only for dinner, and early reservations are recommended to allow for the placid moment needed to fully appreciate the stunning restaurant design by MC2 Architects. It combines wood, stone, fabric and copper into a flowing masterwork of serenity. Behind the sushi counter is an all-white tableau of a mountain range with a curtain of white fringes in front that lends the impression of a gentle breeze. Simple wooden booths mounted back-to-back and supported by stark beams look like the easels of an artist.

Once the throngs arrive, the tranquil atmosphere is transformed into a club-like scene. The music grows louder, every table gets filled and people are elbow-to-elbow at the bar and sushi counter. (That’s the case Thursday through Saturday, at least. Other nights of the week may be more relaxed.) Unfortunately, the din reaches levels where it’s hard to have a conversation or hear the server describe the dishes.

Chef Chris Kinjo made a big impression in 2012 with the first MF Sushi location in Houston. Diners and critics alike quickly heaped praise on the chef, whose restaurant’s name refererences his nickname, “Magic Fingers,” supposedly acquired thanks to his deft manipulation of sushi rice into perfectly textured blocks.

Kinjo had terrible luck before he came to Houston and afterward, too. His Atlanta restaurant, MF Buck, went bankrupt, and a mere ten months after MF Sushi opened in Houston, it closed after a fire. It briefly reopened in the spring of 2014, and then closed again for “reorganization.” When it reopened, it was without Kinjo and, in December 2014, Kinjo announced MF Sushi would be reopening in the current Museum District space. Let’s hope nothing bad happens to the new incarnation.

Diners have the ability to set a budget and have a server-facilitated tasting from the menu — a type of omakase, in a sense. (Omakase is a chef-guided tasting in which diners leave it up to the chef to decide what they eat. This is available at MF Sushi as well, but only by reservation.) Our server, Lorna, did an outstanding job of selecting dishes that represented nearly every section of the menu, from chilled mozuku, a type of viscous seaweed, to warm aburi (or half-cooked, half-raw) nigiri, topped with a thin, juicy layer of A5 Wagyu gently torched to a beautiful sear.
That said, it seems as if every other item on MF Sushi’s menu is garnished with truffle oil, either in the form of truffle-soy sauce or a truffle aioli, and our tasting reflected that predilection. The fish and meats are of such high quality that they simply do not need to be hidden under the strong flavor of truffle oil. It completely overwhelmed the delicate flavor of gorgeous pieces of otoro, or fatty tuna. So diners who go the omakase route, whether at the sushi counter with Kinjo or guided by their servers, may want to opt out on the truffle oil, or they may risk not being able to appreciate fully the quality of what’s being served.

Indeed, MF Sushi shines at its simplest, when the supreme cuts of fish and meat need little more than respect and compliments here and there. Take, for example, madai, or Japanese snapper, nigiri kissed lightly with wasabi and lime zest and custardy uni allowed to shine under its own power on top of a nest of shredded daikon and shiso leaf inside the sea urchin shell it was just harvested from.

MF Sushi, however, stubs its toe — badly — in two areas: pacing and a slightly arrogant tone that seems set by the chef himself.

On each visit, no one seemed to have any control over when dishes came out of the kitchen. Once the order was placed, courses started flying out, sometimes two at a time, with no consideration whatsoever given to whether dishes already on the table had been consumed.

MF Sushi’s high-quality (and not inexpensive) cuisine is good enough to admire and savor. The experience should not be rushed, but it seemed as if someone was deliberately trying to get us out of the restaurant as soon as possible on every visit.

It was even more ridiculous than usual the second visit, to the point of exasperating. We were in dreamlike bliss admiring the colorful bowl of Japanese pickles, the blissful simplicity of translucent slices of raw scallop layered between tiny, thin lime wedges, and the silver-skinned kampachi in their nature-made gradient that spanned from deep rose to pale white. We’d barely tried them when the tobiko nigiri appeared. Then the yellowtail collar, a cooked dish, showed up as well, and there was no prayer of us eating it for at least ten minutes.

Seeing as how this was turning into the same breakneck pace as on a prior visit, I put my foot down. “Ma’am, you’ve really got to slow this down,” I told our server. “We haven’t even finished our sashimi yet.” She waved her hands helplessly and said, “I know. The kitchen’s just really busy, and I had no idea it was going to all come out at once like this.”

Despite the request, she hadn’t been gone for three minutes when a different server brought out yet another plate, the soft-shell crab roll. At this point, there were five dishes on the table and only two of us. We picked through our sashimi feeling helpless as we watched our gorgeous yellowtail collar cool on the opposite side of the table. As if to put a final exclamation mark on the frenetic situation, the shishamo, or cooked smelt, showed up at the very end. It was to have been an appetizer.
Alan Richman wrote an essay called “The Rise of Egotarian Cuisine” for GQ magazine that began, “Something has gone wrong in our restaurant kitchens lately. Suddenly, a new breed of chefs seems to have decided that they should be cooking not for your pleasure but for their own.” At MF Sushi, Kinjo has decided that extends to whether or not customers actually own the food they agreed to purchase .

After our frenzied meal, we decided to leave without dessert (the same decision we made every time for the same reason), but the tender, silken yellowtail collar was too good to leave behind. It was a cooked dish that would survive the journey home, so we asked for a to-go box. “We don’t have to-go boxes,” said the server.

At this point, we’d had enough silliness and asked for a manager. “Why don’t you have to-go boxes?” I asked. “Well, Chef thinks that the food must be enjoyed here,” he responded. “Chris Kinjo isn’t paying for our meal,” I replied. “I’m buying this food, which means I own it, not him.” “Yes, ma’am,” the manager acknowledged after a long pause. The yellowtail collar got wrapped in foil and we took it home.

That same touch of arrogance shows up on the cocktail menu, where some drinks are listed by name only with no indication of ingredients. We asked our server what was in The Wahaka, described only as “complex, smokey [sic], earthy with hints of oranges.” “You mean you want to know what alcohol is in it?” she asked. “No, we want to know the ingredients,” I replied. She went off to find out. As we suspected, it’s a mezcal-based drink. We didn’t order it, figuring the strong, smoky agave spirit would likely overwhelm the delicate Japanese cuisine. It would probably make for a lovely after-dinner libation, though.

As it was, the dry wakatake daiginjo sake proved a loyal companion through dinner. The sakes come in a clever glass carafe that holds ice cubes in a little well to keep it at the perfect temperature. (Fun fact: These lovely blown-glass vessels are available for retail sale at the MF Sushi website.)

Weird chef predilections aside, MF Sushi is practically mandatory dining for sushi lovers. Just either steer your own menu choices or be clear with the server on likes and dislikes, especially if truffle oil isn’t your thing. The quality of the fish is among the best in the city, and the cooked dishes can be divine. Be sure not to over-order, because it’s a shame to leave food behind, and there might not be any choice about it.

MF Sushi
1401 Binz, # 100, 713-637-4587. Hours: 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Mondays; 5:30 to 11 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Fridays through Saturdays.

Shishito peppers $5
Tobiko nigiri (two pieces) $5
Oshinko moriawase $7
Signature kampachi sashimi $9
Hokkaido (live scallop) sashimi $12
Softshell crab roll $14
Signature maguro (tuna) $14
Hamachi kama (yellowtail collar) $16
Kampachi sashimi $18
Hot green tea $2.50
Wakatake daiginjo $22
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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook