Restaurant Review

Inside the New MF Sushi: an All-or-Nothing Kind of Place

Sushi chef Chris Kinjo’s true artistry can only truly be appreciated if you put him in the driver’s seat.

By Robb Walsh August 3, 2014 Published in the August 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Uni served on top of a whole Santa Barbara sea urchin shell

Image: Kate LeSueur

MF Sushi is an all-or-nothing kind of place. On our first visit to the newly reopened Galleria-area restaurant, the waiter told my wife and me that we should order chef Chris Kinjo’s omakase—the Japanese term means “up to you” and describes a sushi dinner where the chef orders for you. But we didn’t want to sit up at the bar watching the chef prepare delicacy after delicacy, the best way to enjoy such a meal. It was date night, and we wanted a table in the back corner of the dining room, so we opted to order off the menu.

Things started off well. The waiter delivered some sashimi made with Japanese golden-eye snapper—a wonderfully delicate, rarely imported fish that we enjoyed immensely. When it came time for round two, however, the waiter dismissed our every selection as “standard sushi bar stuff.” We got a few plates of nigiri sushi, a bottle of tepid sake that was supposed to be chilled, and then the check. We left hungry, wondering why MF Sushi even bothers to print a menu.

As it turns out, though, I’ve come to agree with our waiter—the omakase dinner really is the only thing to order at MF Sushi. It isn’t cheap—a meal starts at $75, and you never really know what you’re going to be charged unless you set a specific limit—but there’s no better way to appreciate the artistry of sushi chef Chris Kinjo.  

Sitting alone at the sushi bar on my second visit, I was so blown away after the first couple of dishes, I quit worrying about the bill. The meal was far beyond anything I’d seen at a sushi bar in Houston. Dinner began with a salad of super-thin black seaweed enriched with a raw quail egg yolk and vinegar sauce. I also tried sweet, chewy blood clams cooked and presented in the shell; horse mackerel sushi with a sardine-like flavor; lean, firm sea bream sushi; dark-red Copper River sockeye triangles; and gorgeously cross-cut gizzard shad with fresh wasabi. The showstopper was a dish of glistening segments of meltingly soft, slightly sweet uni presented across the top of a whole Santa Barbara sea urchin shell. Then came a plate of extra-jumbo Pacific shrimp with cold raw tail meat and hot cooked heads. I first ate the tail sashimi-style, and then, at Kinjo’s direction, pulled the head shell off and ate the body underneath, dipping it in soy and wasabi sauce.

But the meal was far from over. Kinjo is best known for his nigiri—a slice of fish atop a rectangle of rice. But while most sushi chefs mash the rice into a gummy mound, Kinjo’s rolls are delicately formed and barely stick together. He gave me a four-course tuna anatomy lesson by placing four pieces of bluefin tuna nigiri sushi in front of me while pointing to various spots on his body. There was firm, meaty, bright red sushi from the side of the fish; pale, succulent kama toro from the cheek; buttery toro from the belly; and striated, pink and white, melt-in-your mouth o-toro from the fattiest part of the fish, the front end of the belly. I ordered a shot of sweet potato soju—similar to vodka—to cut the fatty taste. 

The next course—a rectangle of imported A5 Japanese Wagyu, the world’s most highly marbled steak—had a surprisingly similar texture to the impossibly fatty tuna. I watched as Kinjo balanced the slice of steak on his fingertips while lightly cooking it with the flame of a blowtorch. The meal ended with a tamago roll, the best version of that moist, sweet scrambled egg sushi I have ever eaten.

The price for more than a dozen courses, a shot of top-shelf shoju over ice, and two Sapporos? $200 with tip. And believe it or not, that’s a bargain for an omakase dinner by this sushi genius. 

Sushi chef Chris Kinjo

Image: Kate LeSueur

Only a few years ago, chef Kinjo owned Atlanta sushi restaurant MF Buckhead, where he charged $250 for an eight-course omakase meal, which he only prepared once a month. The sushi master would reward his favorite customers with an invitation to the exclusive upstairs dining room, picking eight diners from a long waiting list. 

Prior to that, Kinjo worked at 22 different sushi restaurants in Los Angeles before deciding to go out on his own, at which point it didn’t take long for his career to blossom. In 2009, Bon Appetit named MF Buckhead one of the Top 10 sushi spots in the country—an honor shared by Nobu in LA and Uchi in Austin. Kinjo and his brother Alex had three restaurants in Atlanta until the recession put their high-end dining establishments out of business. While visiting his wife’s family in Houston, Chris Kinjo decided the grass looked a lot greener here in the Bayou City. 

When Kinjo started over in Houston, he vowed not to repeat past mistakes. “Running three restaurants took all the fun out of being a chef,” he told me recently across the sushi bar. MF Sushi in Houston originally opened to much acclaim in December of 2012, but the restaurant was devastated by a fire less than a year later. Then, while trying to rebuild, Kinjo had a nightmarish experience with a contractor who ran off with his money. 

The refurbished MF Sushi finally opened again just a few months ago—nine months after it closed. The stunning new décor turns the gigantic sushi bar into a stage, shining a spotlight on the white-jacketed sushi chefs. The polished wood counter has irregular edges that show it was cut from a single tree. Japanese modern art prints cover the walls.

Even MF Sushi’s plates and bowls are works of art. Kinjo’s amazing collection ranges from minimalist planks to delicate fluted dishes to organically inspired avant-garde vessels that look like they were formed from broad leaves of seaweed or seashells. When asked about the unusual crockery, Kinjo explained that he’d commissioned Japan’s greatest ceramic masters to produce these pieces for his restaurants. “I spent $60,000 and filled up a whole shipping container with ceramics,” he said.

Center stage at his jewel box of a restaurant, Kinjo stands out in his traditional Japanese robe—its loose-fitting sleeves held back by a shoulder sash—looking for all the world like a sushi samurai. No, really. Kinjo isn’t trying to run a restaurant empire anymore. These days he’s satisfied serving the best classic Japanese sushi in Houston, if not the nation. “This is my only restaurant now,” he said. “And it’s good to be behind the sushi bar every night.” 

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