The occasional visitor to MF Sushibar or MF Buckhead — those great-but-now-gone Japanese restaurants — would surely remember owner and head chef Chris Kinjo. Slender and intent, he worked with laser focus, hunched over the fine ceramic dishes on which he created edible art.
Regular MF customers also will recall with equal fondness the man who was at Kinjo’s side, Fuyuhiko Ito. In many ways he was the opposite of Kinjo with his stocky fighter’s build, round face and easygoing manner. He handed pieces of nigiri sushi across the counter with a quick smile. He liked to chat — about the fish behind the display case, but also about his home in Japan and his motorcycle excursions in North Georgia. When he fell in love with and married Lisa — the smart, pretty pastry chef at MF Buckhead — everyone in front of the sushi bar and behind it cheered them on.
Now the Kinjo family has decamped to Texas (where their resurgent MF Sushi Houston is getting rave reviews). But all is not lost for Atlanta. Two of chef Ito’s biggest fans have made him a partner at Umi, a stunning new spot in the heart of Buckhead.
Owners Farshid Arshid and Charlie Hendon, working with Atlanta artist Todd Murphy, have lavished attention on the design of this intimate space. Distressed white oak flooring offsets the glossy coal blackness of charred cypress walls. Sepia-toned Japanese photos have been blown up to dominate the walls, and their stern, ghostly subjects gaze down with creepy cool. On the table you will find elegantly tapered disposable chopsticks of a quality you’ve never seen and a pearl grey porcelain tea cup that is a joy to cup in your palm.
These trappings might register as icy minimalism were it not for Fuyuhiko and Lisa Ito breathing their warmth and personality into the room. Together they execute a tightly edited menu. She prepares a dozen or more kitchen dishes as well as dessert; he runs the tradition-minded sushi bar.
Sure, there are some of the prettily plated, shareable appetizers that people expect from an ambitious sushi bar these days — the tuna carpaccio with avocado, the slivered yellowtail with jalapeño pepper and cilantro. But Ito-san is at heart an old-school sushi chef, a guy who makes it his business to know how to shop for, store, cut and bundle fresh raw fish with seasoned rice. He is a master of nigiri-sushi — the greatest one-bite wonder of world gastronomy.
Ito has a personal style that I’ve appreciated since his MF days. He has a way of forming the rice so the sides slope gently without tapering at the ends, of forming pieces that look generous but go down in one comfortable bite, and of cutting the fish so it drapes the rice the way a down comforter settles on a freshly made bed.
He knows his stuff and shares his knowledge. He will pull out a fillet of ma-aji (a near relation to aji, or horse mackerel) and balance it on his index finger to show you the firmness and give of the flesh. It’s at the perfect age, he says, after a day in the cooler. Old enough to develop umami richness, not yet so old that the flesh softens and the flavor coarsens.
If you’re not a fan of mirugai (aka geoduck, the giant clam) because it’s been too texturally close to Orbit gum, then try Ito’s. He knows how to cut ruffle-edged slivers that your teeth slide right through.
So what’s the best way to approach a meal at Umi? You might start as we did with a couple of appetizers from the kitchen, perhaps crispy fried cubes of age-dashi tofu in a flavorful soy broth or a bright salad of compressed cucumber and wakame seaweed in rice wine vinaigrette. You might end with one of the kitchen’s rich hot items, such as seared foie gras with Japanese seasoning or black cod that has spent four days in a miso marinade before broiling to mahogany-edged glory.
But the bulk of the meal should be devoted to whatever Ito recommends from the sushi case. I love exploring the different varieties of white-fleshed fish that aren’t commonly available elsewhere. But the man has a real fondness for tuna. He makes an old-fashioned saku-zuke version by first marinating it in soy and mirin cooking wine. It was the best-tasting piece of akami (red-fleshed tuna) I’ve eaten in years.
Ito’s fans also know to ask for an off-menu special he’s been making since his MF days. He lays a piece of white-fleshed fish (madai snapper on the night we visited) with a minty shiso leaf on the rice, then daubs the top with the citrus chile paste called kanzuri and squeezes a drop or two of fresh yuzu juice for a finishing touch. After eating her piece, my daughter remained silent for 10 seconds before saying, “That’s the best piece of sushi I’ve ever had.” Farshid Arshid, the restaurant’s co-owner, admits that it was this piece of sushi that made him want to invest in Ito’s future.
Even if you’re not typically a fan of Japanese desserts, you’ll want to sample Lisa Ito’s green tea souffle with Curaçao crème anglaise, an airy luxury. Though green tea is the traditional drink after a sushi meal, Umi has invested in an interesting coffee program. A waitress will come to the table to perform a Japanese pourover, which sounds kinky but is really just a stylized method for preparing drip coffee with a cone filter. The brew from Lamill Coffee roasters in Los Angeles is quite tasty.
With touches like this, it’s no wonder Umi attracts a glammy Buckhead crowd. Look through the room and you will espy plenty of taut faces, unnatural tans and dresses that defy gravity. Arshid says he can’t keep Dom Pérignon in the house. Still, there are all kinds of other folks, too, who may be soaking in the scene but are there for the sushi.
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