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.