MF Sushi Houston
By Alison Cook | May 28, 2013 | Updated: May 29, 2013 12:28pm
Chris Kinjo sets aside the knife with which he is dismantling a bluefin tuna belly and hoists a 3-foot strip of the fish in the air. It glimmers, pink and pearlescent, under the light shed by pendant lamps that jiggle like red jellyfish over the counter of MF Sushi. He’s holding it as reverently as if he were displaying a piece of fine jewelry at a counter in Neiman Marcus.
Kinjo draws his hand over the bluefin belly gently, barely skimming the fish, and draws it away with a small, satisfied smile. “See the fat?” he asks, his hand gleaming with an oily sheen.
That fat is a good thing. In a way, where raw tuna is concerned, it’s everything: the component that gives the fish its voluptuous mouth feel and distinct oceanic tinge, the element that separates the belly into graded sections – chu-toro and o-toro depending on their fat content.
Kinjo serves akami, the ruddiest tuna meat taken from the back, in sashimi form: fanned into four meticulous rectangles thick enough to emphasize the slight crunch of their satiny texture and to heighten their meaty twang. The softer belly meat, cut slightly thinner, comes draped across delicately packed morsels of sushi rice, tinged with vinegar and slightly sticky, each grain miraculously distinct.
The chu-toro, or medium-fatty tuna belly, is light rose and slick, with a melting quality and a sea tang. The o-toro, the fattiest tuna, is paler pink still, and it seems to dissolve on the tongue, leaving behind a whisper of the ocean.
Savoring the difference the fat makes is one of the many pleasures at MF Sushi, Kinjo’s exciting new restaurant at Westheimer and Fountainview. Lurking without fanfare or obvious signage in a face- less corner strip mall, the place doesn’t look like much. And the name, which followed Kinjo from Atlanta, promises little. (It sup- posedly springs from a nickname, “Magic Fingers,” given to Kinjo by fellow chefs.) But inside, the modestly good-looking room hand- fashioned on a tight budget by Kinjo and his brother, Alex, is home to some of the best old-school sushi and sashimi I’ve ever tasted.
When I say “old-school,” I mean that Kinjo is not interested in the modern fusion approach to sushi, the style in which jalapeños and olive oil and all sorts of other ingredients, from fruit to nuts, figure in. Nor does he compete to offer the most flamboyant sushi rolls, in which the fish takes a backseat to embellishments.
Kinjo is a classicist, centered on fashioning sleek, elemental mouth- fuls of letter-perfect rice and surgically cut fish. And he’s as good at what he does as the finest sushi masters I’ve encountered. I put Kinjo up on a level with such talents as Naomichi Yasuda (founding chef of Sushi Yasuda in New York); Shiro Kashiba of Shiro’s in Seattle; and more eclectic chefs including Nobuo Fukuda of Phoenix, Soto- hiro Kosugi of Soto in New York and Houston’s own Manabu Ho- riuchi of Kata Robata.
Kinjo was highly acclaimed during his years in Atlanta, where his high-end restaurants ran into financial trouble ending in bankruptcy. He has brought his lower-profile second act to Houston, along with core staffers who (significantly) chose to make the move with him. Our local sushi culture – now at a high point with Kata Robata and Uchi operating at top levels – is the richer for it.
The best way to experience Kinjo’s skills is to reserve a seat at the curvilinear wooden sushi counter (hand-planed and finished by the brothers Kinjo themselves) for a multicourse omakase meal, which puts you in the chef’s hands. (You can also snag a seat there without booking by coming early in the week or early in the evening.) Save your pennies because at $75 and up, omakase here is a splurge – but if you care about the sushi and sashimi arts, it is money well spent.
Part of the joy of omakase at MF Sushi has nothing to do with the fine quality of the fish – it’s the excellence and novelty of some traditional Japanese preparations seldom seen here. In a Houston summer, there are few things more refreshing than Kinjo’s salad of black seaweed served in a bat-winged ceramic bowl, to be beaten up with an egg yolk and a blob of freshly grated horseradish root. It’s an Okinawan specialty and a tribute to Kinjo’s family roots, with a sweet-tart-salty lilt of ponzu and soy. Once you’ve chopsticked up the slippery glass-noodlelike seaweed threads, you can pick up the dish and drink what’s left like soup, sipping from one of the bat wings.
Then there’s the moment every evening when a staffer emerges from the kitchen bearing a brown-glazed square of tamago, the Japanese egg custard, which shivers and shakes on its wooden pedestal as it is placed on the counter for diners to admire. No sludgy-saccharine tamago here: sliced into rectangles and set forth near the end of a meal, this is a version with just a hint of sweetness and a texture like a soft, springy cloud. I’ve never been a tamago fan, but I found myself loving it at MF Sushi.
I also look forward to the moment when Kinjo takes his sharkskin grater and rubs a broad pale chunk of mountain yam against it, end- ing with the traditional dish called yamakake. Pulped to an ivory froth, the yam joins cubes of lean tuna in a bowl, where the diner uses chopsticks to whip it together with needles of toasted nori (sea- weed) and a bit of ponzu. The end result? A slippery, cool pottage that is surprisingly glorious.
Kinjo’s plates of sashimi are so artfully constructed I like to take a moment to gaze at them before diving in. Maybe it’s kinmedai, the opulent goldeneye snapper, sliced to display a glint of mottled skin at the edges and fanned into a peacock’s tail and dotted with yuzu koshu, the Japanese citrus paste livened with green chile. Maybe it’s slices of hamachi, the Japanese amberjack or yellowtail, paved into a tight overlapping circle that perfectly matches the round cen- ter of a two-toned stoneware square, its rich, mellow flavor lifted by perfumed snippets of lime rind grated right onto the plate.
In either case, the sashimi will come with nests of daikon radish shredded impossibly fine, along with a corkscrew curl of carrot or a radish sliced so thin you could probably read through it. All this is evidence of Kinjo’s well-honed knife skills. He’s fun to watch as he works behind the counter, lean and intense, swig- ging periodically on a Bud Light. His short hair sticks straight up from the top of his skull, and his professorial glasses glint
under the jellyfish lights. He’s got a sense of humor as sharp as his knives, and when a diner says something that amuses him, his short bark of laughter can bring the house to attention.
Kinjo’s nigiri sushi, those classic combos of fish and rice, are dis- tinguished as much by their completeness as by the ethereal quality of the rice and the graceful drape and cut of the fish. He paints each piece of fish or shellfish with a mix of soy and mirin that gives them a semi-gloss finish and just enough seasoning to make a side dunk in soy irrelevant. Inside, under the fish, goes a pin dot of real-deal grated horseradish root. It’s a package that needs no further cus- tomizing, whatever the featured ingredient, from edgy shima aji, or horse mackerel, to the sweetest ama ebi, or live shrimp.
And oh, the textures Kinjo’s knife can produce. His live-scallop ni- giri is butterflied and scored into a sort of teepee shape, breaking up the scallop’s monumental smoothness into something altogether more interesting. Unagi, the broiled freshwater eel, has been finely scored so it blooms into a nubby field as it’s draped over the rice, then wrapped in the toastiest ribbon of nori.
Kohada, the small gizzard shad that Kinjo cites as one of the oldest traditional Japanese sushi fish, comes crisscrossed with closely spaced scoring on its silvery, dotted skin, so that it looks like an ex- otic piece of mosaic. If you like sardines, you’ll enjoy its oily, au- thoritative flavor.
Toward the end of an omakase meal, if the fates align, Kinjo might produce a whole goldeneye snapper head cooked over Japanese charcoal; or a whopping slab of charcoaled bluefin cheek on the bone. These delicacies, meant to be worried apart with chopsticks, are daubed in a sticky, dark, spicy-sweet Japanese curry roux called kare, They’re an atavistic treat after the careful geometrics of much of the meal. Under Kinjo’s urging, I even extracted the gellike sac under the goldeneye’s eyeball and glugged it down. It was like in- gesting a clear jellied brine, with a little brackish undertone. Weird but not unpleasant.
All this is served on Kinjo’s handsome collection of vintage Japan- ese ceramics and serving ware. Glazed or rough, subtle as earth or riotous as red snakeskin, folded or pleated or combed, these dishes are a feast in themselves. They sail out to the dining room as well as the omakase counter – but not all of the sushi and sashimi are available in both parts of the restaurant. Kinjo reserves some of the more unusual items, such as that kohada or the bluefin cheeks, for his omakase customers.
In a sense, that makes MF Sushi two different restaurants. There’s the dining room, where you can order lunch or din- ner from the regular nigiri sushi or sashimi menu, and from a selection of cooked or composed dishes, and eat well. (A salmon-skin handroll I ordered off the main menu was a paragon of handroll virtue, the salmon skin crisp and meaty,
the toasted nori wrap as brittle as you please.) And then there’s the omakase counter, where you can eat better but only at night.
I could be content to sit in the dining room and eat the regulation sushi and sashimi turned out by Kinjo and his two longtime lieu- tenants, Masayuki Kuwai and Miguel Luzuriaga. I might skip over the chawanmushi, the savory Japanese custard dish served here with uni (sea urchin) and lobster, because it’s the single dish I haven’t liked over the course of three epic visits. (It seemed watery and un- persuasive the night I tried it).
The somewhat sketchy but adequate list of beers, wines and sakes has enough that’s suitable to the food – particularly a small but frisky range of South American whites – to make for an enjoyable time. Uchi Houston has set the bar high in this regard, and I hope in time Kinjo and company can match that standard. They have already hired more adept serving staff than they had when they opened in November, when some of their waitpeople looked and acted terri- fied. But they still look a little understaffed on the floor to me.
Food as fine as Kinjo’s deserves top-level service and a refined bev- erage program to go with it. I’m hopeful about the prospects for both if the restaurant becomes a hit. And it could. For those who commit to an omakase meal at the counter, MF Sushi already provides one of the city’s peak dining experiences