Omakase room at MF Buckhead bucks the trend

With its $350 price tag, this sushi concept targets a specific audience

This room is the restaurant's sushi sanctorum, a beatified aerie that promises heaven in the form of an omakase (chef's choice) meal fashioned from the finest seasonal fish in the world. The price for such indulgence? Up to $350 a person for 18 courses.

Last month, after a year of mystery since MF Buckhead opened, sushi chef Chris Kinjo quietly began inviting his high-rolling regular customers up to the eight-seat sushi bar once a week. There, he has plied them with such rarefied exotica as thread-sail filefish served in a sauce of its own liver, mounds of poached cod milt, tiny violet petals of shiso flower, sea urchin sorbet, edible gold leaf, and $350 bottles of "Purple Mountain" sake.

In the midst of an economic downturn that Kinjo admits has cut sales at his top-rated sushi restaurant by 30 percent, he is counting on this sliver of extremely high-end business to help pull him through.

"I've been collecting data and have a list of over 300 people," Kinjo says.

For many of these diners, sushi is the ultimate expression of sourcing and artistry in cuisine, and they believe Kinjo ranks with the top itamae-san (sushi chefs) in the country.

Yet times could not be worse for dining establishments. "This is the most challenging economic environment for restaurant operators in nearly three decades," says Annika Stensson, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, in an e-mail.

The association's Restaurant Performance Index shows the industry to be in its longest period of contraction on record. Overall sales declined 1.2 percent in 2008, the association forecasts another 1 percent drop in real growth over 2009.

Still, the gloomy economic outlook didn't stop Atlanta businesswoman Su So-Longman, who would ask Kinjo about the omakase room "every time we went in" to dine at MF Buckhead, from being among the first diners on the list. She and a few other diners gathered one recent night at the downstairs bar from where they could see a shadowy rustle of forms moving behind the opaque glass of the omakase room. Once called upstairs, two waitresses in full kimono greeted them. Inside, Kinjo and his top sushi chef Fuyuhiko Ito stood behind the bar, and one bright-eyed madai snapper lay upon the 6-foot-long blond maple cutting board.

The guests sank into white leather Georgetti wingback chairs, toasted the chefs with Gosset rosé champagne and settled in for four hours of minimalist excess — small bites framed on gorgeous dishware in a seemingly never-ending parade. The chairs were spaced at a comfortable distance around the arc of the 4-inch-thick black walnut sushi counter, and yet a near-hermetic soundproofing made it so that hushed conversation carried from one end of the bar to the other.

As Kinjo unsheathed a knife to butcher the fish, Ito brought the guests bowls of hot broth in which floated chrysanthemum leaves and custardy mounds of cod milt, i.e. sperm. An additional 17 courses followed, as did bottles of sake and wine. Before long, the conversation was anything but hushed.

The menu divided into three acts: sashimi (sliced raw fish with accompaniments) came first; sushi (sliced fish on fingers of rice) followed; and a variety of cold and hot dishes, each progressively richer, brought the meal to its conclusion. Pastry chef Lisa Matsuoka offered a pearlescent oval of ginger sorbet flecked with gold leaf for a calming coda.

Kinjo ordered several varieties of fish from Tokyo's Tsukiji market that rarely show up on American sushi menus. Among them: akamatsu, a variety of snapper that costs $70 a pound; inada, a baby yellowtail; and mekki aji, a shiny-skinned fish that Kinjo says is called "blue streamer" in English.

There were also some highly prized luxury items on the menu, including fresh abalone (for which the restaurant pays $400 a pound) and Japanese wagyu beef so marbled it appeared nearly white when raw.

"I was always holding my breath in anticipation for the next course," said So-Longman afterward, adding, "The whole experience — it was like a complete oral orgasm."

Kinjo has been preparing the omakase menu every Thursday for the past month, charging guests between $200 and $350, depending on the price of the ingredients, for which he won't stint.

"Times are hard now, but I have to do this the right way," Kinjo said. "I want this to be not only the best omakase in Atlanta but in America."

For now, customers are filling the weekly seats.

Ted Golden, a technology entrepreneur from Atlanta, has been eager to reserve, but admits, "At that price point, it's hard to find enough people who are willing to go.

"But my birthday's coming up," he laughed. "Maybe I can find someone to foot the bill."

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