MF Buckhead

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

By Meridith Ford

IN TOKYO, the marvel of fresh fish at Tsukiji Fish Market is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Japan, and the largest fish market in the world. Tons of fish stream through the market every morning; by noon, tuna, sardines and swordfish have been auctioned to wholesalers, retailers and restaurants.

One of those restaurants is MF Buckhead, where fish is flown in daily. It’s a newly opened gem nes- tled quietly into the Terminus Building amid a lot of loudly decked out neighbors — Bricktops and Aquaknox are next door; Lola is directly across the pavilion.

By contrast, MF Buckhead is easy to walk past without realizing it’s there. It doesn’t need to be brash – proof is in the pudding, or in MF’s case, fish. Before the restaurant opened six weeks ago, its sister in Midtown, owned and operated by brothers Chris and Alex Kinjo, was the best sushi restaurant in the area — a small, quiet, stylish spot more like what might be found in Japan.

But MF Buckhead has done something that no other restaurant in Atlanta has ever done on such a grand scale. Its 8,000 square feet of jaw-dropping space has finally — and successfully — combined the big, bold Buckhead look that Atlanta loves with an absolutely incomparable dining experience. No detail — from the perfect thickness of the wooden chopsticks to the amazing sake list — has been ignored. From the earthy, exotic stoneware (imported from Japan) at the table to the stacked walnut flooring, the restaurant exudes elegance and grace. Movable silk panels separate tables; the sushi bar spans the length of the main dining room and dons 12 to 15 sushi chefs during busy hours. An omakase room (which won’t be open until spring 2008) is sequestered upstairs near a quiet lounge. Sake labels are amassed in glass in the bar for a textured, colorful, exotic effect, and Ikebana masters Hiroshi and Elaine Jo’s floral masterpieces add even more elegance.

Toward the end of the sushi bar is a robata grill — the first in Atlanta — where specialties like King Atlantic prawns and succulent Japanese black cod marinated in a sweet miso sauce until translucent and caramelized are prepared.

And it is the sushi bar that is the beating heart of this restaurant. Tucked away at a quiet table is a calm- ing, even romantic, way to wile away an afternoon — but the bar is where the action is. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a spot near Fuyuhiko Ito, the restaurant’s robatayaki master, who worked at the famed Toriyoshi in Tokyo before coming to the United States. Working with Chris Kinjo, the two have creat- ed a mesmerizing robatayaki list, from miso-marinated duck breast (miso yaki), full of sweet and salty flavors over a green shiso leaf, to grilled eel served with avocado and cucumber, to the granddad- dy of all — thin slices of kobe beef, variegated so beautifully that it looks like Italian marble. It’s served over a stone konro (think grill), set before you with a small piece of fat from the beef. Ito will instruct you to rub the fat over the stone’s surface, then place a slice of the perfectly sliced beef over the heat to cook — no more than three seconds per side. Each slice has an even thinner slice of garlic, and dipped into accompanying ponzu, it is a mesmerizing treat of textures and flavors, a little like eating beef-flavored velvet.

For colder options, snow crab wrapped in a slightly seared, smoky salmon with asparagus brought an ecstatic rolling of eyes around the entire group. Fresh yellowtail is brightened with lemon and cilantro, a gorgeous fish sliced with thin slivers of jalapeno. If Ito gets the impression that you like something he might make a special, off-the-menu treat (but then, that is always the advantage of a sitting at the sushi bar). One evening whitefish was served nigiri style with thin slices of tiny yuzu and a drop of a salty, pep- pery paste he called kanzari, sprinkled with Himalayan salt. The Japanese have garnered a rep for Western, French-inspired desserts and pastries, and MF is the flagship for them in the area. Pastry chef Lisa Matsuoka, a CIA grad who trained under fab Frenchman François Payard at Le Bernadin in New York, creates beautifully crafted plates of coffee-laced tiramisu with an Eastern twist of yuzu, graced with tiny, crystallized slices of the Japanese citrus. Sesame ice cream is rich and luxurious and tiny rectangles of a green tea frangipane-like cake are sandwiched with a red bean paste doused with head-dizzying booze.

But it is the fish that reigns here, just as it does in Midtown. The rice for the nigiri is always the per- fect temperature, and the fish, whether otoro (which is like eating the perfect kiss), kampachi or something as simple as Japanese red snapper, is the absolute best.

After experiencing MF, it will be hard to eat sushi anywhere else.