He Works Hard for the Uni
Chris “Magic Fingers” Kinjo aspires to sushi perfection. So you’d better not reach for the soy sauce.
Editor’s Note: A fire at MF Sushi on September 29 has closed the restaurant. The owners hope to reopen by January 2014.
“You looked like you were in a trance,” I said to Houston sushi chef Chris Kinjo, realizing a split second too late that the remark might not be taken as a compliment. Far from being affronted, he gave a short, staccato laugh. “Whew,” I thought, “at least I haven’t terminally insulted the guy.” A friend and I were doing omakase—the chef’s tasting menu—at MF Sushi, the restaurant that Kinjo owns with his brother Alex. Depending on the chef, omakase can be formal and reverential or lively and fun. This one was in a class of its own, like a combination banquet, performance art piece, and TED talk. One minute Kinjo would be casually sipping an Amstel Light and holding forth on some topic, say, the difference between the various grades of lean and fatty bluefin tuna (he tends to get wound up). The next, he seemed to enter a different dimension. Focusing on the array of pristine raw fish in the refrigerated cases in front of him, he would select one and, with swift, surgical strokes, slice it into identical pieces. Then, without looking, he would reach around to a large rice warmer behind him and grasp a small, precise handful of rice. His mind still a thousand miles away, he would press fish and rice together with a fluid motion of hand, wrist, and elbow, decorate each jewel-like bite with a special glaze and other accoutrements, and set it before its recipient like a Christmas gift. To borrow a phrase from sports, the man was in the zone.
MF Sushi—the initials allegedly stand for the 42-year-old Kinjo’s nickname, Magic Fingers—has become a hit with the sushi hounds of Houston, despite the fact that it sits in a bleak strip center on a decidedly unstylish part of Westheimer. Once you’re through the front door, however, the space opens up to reveal walls adorned with graceful hand-painted branches, rustic shelves stacked with gorgeous ceramic and wooden dishes (some quite old), and a massive cedar sushi counter running almost the length of the room. The restaurant opened ten months ago, not long after Kinjo and his wife and kids moved to Houston from Georgia to get a fresh start. In Atlanta, the Los Angeles–raised chef had been in charge of a large, ambitious dining venue named MF Buckhead. But when the national recession struck, in 2008, the restaurant went into a tailspin from which it never recovered. Forced to declare bankruptcy—“I lost everything,” he said—Kinjo also made some important discoveries about himself. Over the course of thirty restaurants in fourteen years, he had done it all, from prepping the fish to running the entire show, and found that what he really wanted was to devote his career to making the best traditional sushi he possibly could. Three words summed it up: “I’m a perfectionist,” he said.
There was ample evidence of that the night we ate there. For our opener, Kinjo started my friend Dai and me with mozuku, a type of seaweed made into a hybrid soup-salad with a quail egg and vinegar sauce. Slippery and spinach-like, it was probably my least favorite course of the night. But the next presentation was golden-eye red snapper, and it may well have been my favorite. Ten pieces of fish arrived fanned out like a gaudy pink peacock tail in a white bowl, the creature’s freshness heightened with yuzu kosho, a dusky, salty fermented chile-and-citrus-peel paste that marches up to your sinuses and tells them who’s boss. And we were off to the races. From there we segued to Ora king salmon, a block of coral-colored rectangular pieces sliced so meticulously that the grain on adjacent cut edges still lined up. Yellowtail was next, then Japanese sea bream, or madai. Course number six was another highlight of the evening, rosy sea bass, or akamutsu, a fish both rare and costly. When Dai and I innocently pointed our chopsticks in the direction of the soy sauce, Kinjo barked, “No soy!” A chef doing omakase gives (almost) every fish a subtle swipe of house-made nikiri, a classic glaze made from soy and sweet mirin. Having gone to all that trouble, the last thing he wants to see is you dunking his artwork in the Kikkoman.
As the evening progressed, we fell into an easy rhythm of chatting, popping morsels of sushi into our mouths, and urging Kinjo into various stories and rants. After the fresh uni, or sea urchin gonads, perched atop an urchin shell that resembled an oceangoing purple porcupine (pictured), we heard about the $5,000 custom knife he’d once ordered. Following the tender slivers of Maine scallop, we heard where his fish comes from: “We get practically everything from Japan except tuna and sometimes king salmon.” After prawns two ways—the tail crunchy-raw and the fierce-looking head deliciously fried—we heard about the fascinating method of shipping fresh fish from Japan in an acupuncture-induced twilight state called kaimin katsugyo, or “live fish sleeping soundly.” But the subject that really got Kinjo going was rice. “I want the grains to be just sticky enough to hold together,” he said, “but there must be air between them so they don’t clump. I fluff them with my fingers when I scoop them out of the bin.” Moistened with his own recipe of sugar, sea salt, vinegar, and mirin, the rice here is a revelation.
After more than three hours and twenty courses, we were turning into live fish sleeping soundly ourselves. But there was one final dish to sample, the thing that Kinjo is most proud of: tamago. To hear him say that was a surprise, because those rubbery little squares of sweet omelet are usually the most boring item on a sushi menu. But it seems that among Japanese chefs, the perfect tamago is a holy grail, something they happily fuss and fiddle with for a lifetime. And when I nibbled a bit of the velvety, golden version here, I blurted out the first thing that sprang to mind: French toast. I don’t think that was the reaction Kinjo expected, but he didn’t seem displeased, just bemused. And suddenly he was back in the zone again. In my imagination, I could see his mind analyzing the remark: “If it’s like French toast, that means I need to work on . . .” That must happen a lot when you’re a perfectionist.