Restaurant Review - MF Buckhead: Money where your mouth is

Struggling with perfection and arrogance

Am I the only person left in Atlanta who thinks $100 is a lot of money? Because it blows my mind how little $100 will get you at most Atlanta restaurants these days. And the fact that the diners keep coming, night after night, laying down enough money to pay a winter heating bill, is utterly astounding. Are we all really that rich? Where does it end?

At MF Buckhead, in the new Terminus building, $100 will get approximately one person fed, depending on what your definition of "fed" is.

Restaurants are expensive to open and, especially in fancy new buildings, expensive to design and staff. Once a restaurateur has decided on a certain level of quality in the product, the price point is hard to change. I understand all that, as I understand that we, as a city, want our restaurants, expensive and otherwise, to thrive and prosper. The problem at MF Buckhead is that once you've entered the $100-plus-per-person range, the experience damn well better be flawless.

And sometimes it is. But more often, the food, the service and the experience is less than flawless. There are small annoyances I would barely notice if I weren't shelling out such a huge chunk of change. So please take my sometimes-small quibbles with that in mind.

MF Buckhead is the sequel to the Kinjo brothers' MF Sushi in Midtown. Where MF Sushi is small, sleek and intimate, this space is high-ceilinged, modern and almost stark except for a few touches that make it feel personal. Tree branches adorned with sprigs of beads stand out against the white walls, and long ropes of white, which look almost like droplets, act as dividers. On busy nights, the clubby music and swell of conversation bouncing around the cavernous space can be deafening.

Fish are flown in daily from the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, and it's this extravagance in part that justifies the very high prices. Sometimes, the fresh grated wasabi, or a light, feathery and yet creamy bite of uni (sea urchin) makes it all seem worthwhile. But after sampling a large array of sashimi, I've had experiences that run the gamut from sublime to disappointing. One evening the young yellowtail is light, sweet and velvety; another, it is bland and a tad too fishy.

The other big draw is the robata grill, a special Japanese charcoal grill burning special Japanese binchotan charcoal and controlled by special Japanese paper fans. It's all very special and very Japanese, but here the results were mixed as well. Tender slices of Kobe beef tongue served with small chunks of foie gras were deliciously seared and slightly smoky, and black cod had that wonderfully caramelized fatty skin and buttery interior. But eel arrived tepid and not tasting much different than the packaged stuff you see in any eel-and-avocado roll, and the few bites of eggplant, while creamy and delicious, were probably about 25 cents' worth of vegetable for $8.50.

Every time I visited MF Buckhead, I left hungry. Even when the few bites of food I had were exquisite, they seemed too few. Four bites of sashimi, three bites of something from the robata grill, two bites of sushi roll, two small glasses of sake: $100. I found myself longing for the original MF Sushi, where the quality has always been stellar and for $100 I could have a sushi extravaganza.

Servers are all hot young Asian women, and in my experiences they knew the menu back and forth, even the overwhelmingly encyclopedic sake list. Service issues are less about individual faux pas and more a problem of policy. For instance, the restaurant supposedly closes at 10:30 p.m. When I called to make a 9:30 reservation, I was warned on the phone that I'd be cutting it close – last call for food is at 10:15. This is perhaps a policy I'd expect at a neighborhood sushi joint, but at a high-end establishment the practice is usually to seat customers until closing time, not to hope everyone is leaving around closing time.

And indeed, it was a problem. I was able to order something from the robata grill as soon as I was seated at 9:30, but the food had not arrived by 10:15, and my waitress returned to tell me I'd better order sashimi if I wanted it because it was last call. No explanation was given as to why the other food was taking so long. Our server was sweet, but the underlying message seemed to be that it was my problem.

And that's the real issue at MF Buckhead: this vein of arrogance that seems to run through the place. On the restaurant's website, executive chef and co-owner Chris Kinjo is described as "the picasso. the phenom. the magician." The high prices, the policies that would cause a diner to feel rushed even an hour before purported closing, the sometimes long waits for food with no explanation, and the variable quality all point to a restaurant that feels as though its customers need it more than it needs them. There is some stellar food to be had here, and it's certainly the scene du jour (on a recent evening, record producer Dallas Austin could be spotted at the sushi bar with his entourage, at one point giving the sushi chefs a standing ovation). But that kind of arrogance and these high prices demand perfection, and perfection, unfortunately, is not what MF Buckhead is delivering.