You’ll do just fine at MF Sushi Atlanta if you like showmanship, an attractive clientele (often in tight dresses), proficient sushi, and eggplant whose pale white flesh is forged over super-hot charcoal to surpassing creaminess. And if you know to ask which fish came in that day, no matter what specials the server announces. And if you don’t mind being occasionally whammed in the taste buds by sriracha and togarashi, found in most anything with the words signature and special.
MF Sushi Atlanta is the comeback story of chef-owner Chris Kinjo, who in the early 2000s won accolades for making sushi heavy on the showmanship (MF stands for “magic fingers”) and on the price (omakase meals could top $350 a head). The cost was apparently worth it: In 2008 John Kessler at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution gave MF Buckhead endless column inches of love. But the Buckhead location—8,000 square feet, 276 seats, $350 dinners—was hard to make work once the Great Recession hit. Also, Chris had a taste for ordering big-ticket, exclusive fish from Tsukiji, the famous Tokyo fish market. (I spent the most memorable two hours of this year visiting it for the first time; I felt I was on another planet.) Chris, who worked in dozens of restaurants in Los Angeles before opening his own here in 2002, even had a broker in Japan to pick out rarities for once-a-week shipments.
Unfortunately, there weren’t enough wealthy Atlanta sushi fans to keep Kinjo’s empire running; he filed for bankruptcy in 2011. At the end of 2012, he and his brother, Alex, opened an MF Sushi in a Houston strip mall, where they again won loyal fans. Alison Cook, food critic at the Houston Chronicle, was mesmerized by the sight of Chris hoisting mosaic-like strips of bluefin belly and sensuously stroking the fat. Kinjo was “as good at what he does as the finest sushi masters I’ve encountered,” she wrote, serving “sleek, elemental mouthfuls of letter-perfect rice and surgically cut fish.”
Atlanta loyalists will be excited to know that MF Sushi is back in town, this time in a downsized location in Inman Park (the Houston restaurant is still in place). Assuming they can find it, that is. The restaurant faces a below-street-level courtyard in the new Inman Quarter shopping complex directly across the street from Barcelona Wine Bar, among a host of stores selling locally crafted rugs and furniture. Whether anyone will discover the shops is an open question, since you have to wander in from Elizabeth Street or down a flight of unmarked stairs from North Highland.
Once you zero in on the front door, you enter an odd shoebox of a room, long and too bright with silver modernistic beehive chandeliers and Japanese rice paper circles on the ceiling. It’s packed, too, with young people ready to party and rub shoulders with the nattily dressed Alex Kinjo, who bounces among the tables dispensing pats on the shoulders to men and hugs to women.
What they won’t find are Chris and his magic fingers. The dazzling creativity I’ve read about—it’s in Houston, where Chris is keeping the restaurant running while Alex builds the Atlanta location. (Alex says Chris will come in about once a month for omakase dinners, which will start at $125 a head.) Directing the chefs here is the affable and intense Quynh Vung, a Kinjo loyalist since the Buckhead days. He and the kitchen staff are competent and fast, even if the service is slightly spotty; servers buzz by but seldom scan to see if you need anything and never wipe tables, however embarrassingly messy you—by which I mean me—are.
It’s hard to get bad sushi here. Fresh nigiri, sashimi, and rolls often feature exceptional fish, particularly the addictive otoro, fatty tuna chopped with scallion and wasabi. The rice is lightly seasoned with soy and mirin and is sticky and slightly warm. The classic nigiri, sashimi, and “traditional” rolls are reliably fresh, with warm rice and cool but not cold (as in, just right) fish. The nori seaweed wrapper, though, consistently baffled the sushi aficionados I invited to each dinner, because you have to chew it so much longer than anything else. That’s intentional, maybe; Vung told me he prides himself on finding the freshest seaweed.
But sushi transcendence? Keep moving. The specials are far more chancy than the classic sushi—a shame, because there are so many of them. It’s as if Vung thinks that high-quality fish, which comes in Tuesday through Thursday from Japan, isn’t quite enough to interest customers. “MF signature nigiri sushi” benefit little from the flavor boosts of, say, truffle soy, serrano peppers, and Dijon mustard, and “special rolls” are frequently goosed with sriracha, red pepper, and the spicy mayo. The servers will steer you to the spicy tuna Osaka box-style roll, with tuna, salmon, and masago; you’ll taste mostly the sriracha, along with the strong afterkick of togarashi, a fiery mixture that usually contains at least seven kinds of pepper and seasoning.
Two kinds of fish did stand out for being both pristine and succulent. The first was a Pacific king salmon—which I could imagine a chef behind the counter stroking to show off the fat—discovered only after inquiring about the source of most of the salmon on the menu (farmed Atlantic salmon). The second was a golden-eye red snapper, a Japanese fish that struck a spectacular balance between the showy richness of otoro and the relative spareness of mackerel or amberjack, which it visually resembled. Those and the chopped otoro roll would be my go-to sushi order, now that I’ve fulfilled my duty of tasting through the nigiri and sashimi menu. (My privilege, let’s be honest—though MF Sushi Atlanta’s prices are average for higher-end restaurants, it’s extremely rare to feel you can try nearly as much as you want.)
Or you can skip the sushi entirely and still come out happy. Vung’s greatest strength lies in specially imported Japanese charcoal, which burns super-hot—1200 degrees Fahrenheit, he told me. The grilled smelt and mackerel were impeccable—fresh and deep-flavored, with tender flesh and charred yet delicately papery skin. Also expertly charred were the salmon cheek and yellowtail cheek, both fatty and soft within. And that eggplant, dressed with just miso, mirin, and sugar and served on a cube-shaped hibachi, is magical. We ordered it at every dinner to see if the flesh would be as custardy as it was on our first visit. It wasn’t, exactly, but the saving grace of the hibachi is that you can let the food cook a little longer to soften it. Still, every time it seemed like a feat that had the kind of Japanese élan and bold style I’d hoped to find on the rest of the menu.
Likely I will, when Chris flies into town. As it happens, I recently moved a few steps from MF Sushi Atlanta. I’ll gladly be a regular for the energy in the room, Alex’s lively welcome, and the simple rolls that can make near-bargain meals. To see what dazzled Buckhead and Houston, though, I’ll wait for a spot at one of those omakase dinners.
★★★★ (very good)
Good to know
Check the website for special omakase dinners when Chris Kinjo comes to town (once a month, we’re told).
299 North Highland Avenue
This article originally appeared in our October 2015 issue.