“Mujo is by design a restaurant built around intimate experiences,” chef J. Trent Harris says. “We want it to have a warm, genuine Southern hospitality feel mixed with omotenashi [Japanese hospitality]. The evening is custom built around the guests and one brief moment in time for them.”
A tenet in Buddhism, the very meaning of “mujo” in Japanese is impermanence, that one must accept change is part of life and these “brief moments” Harris describes should be savored and appreciated while they last. It’s also the principle tenet behind Mujo, the Castellucci Hospitality restaurant Harris now leads next door to the group’s tapas restaurant Cooks and Soldiers on Howell Mill Road.
Harris began his career as a sushi chef nearly 20 years ago working in a Japanese restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. The chef there was looking for an assistant. Young and eager, Harris says it was here he first learned the fundamentals of sushi making and grew to appreciate the techniques and high level of skill needed to work with fish and rice in this way.
After finishing culinary school, Harris moved to New York, working at restaurants like Suzume in Brooklyn and Michelin star establishments Sushi Ginza Onodera and Shuko. It was at Sushi Ginza Onodera under master sushi chef Masaki Saito where Harris says his real training began, eventually leading to months spent honing his skills in edomae-style sushi at the restaurant’s Tokyo location.
A style of sushi originating in Tokyo, edomae involves a highly nuanced process of marinating or curing fish to preserve and release the subtle flavors each fish contains. But, it also includes understanding the textures of various fish as well as temperature control and how changes in temperature affect the flavor, salinity, and even the color of fish.
“My mentors taught me the foundations and to have respect for the fish and the traditions for making sushi, but they also encouraged me to continue learning and to create interpretations that represent my own experiences, too.”
Harris first met Federico “Fred” Castellucci III, president and CEO of Castellucci Hospitality in Atlanta, while working one evening behind the sushi counter at Shuko. Castellucci was dining with his wife. He describes the omakase served that night as one of the “best sushi experiences,” right down to the subtle edits Harris made to the menu based on his wife’s preferences.
Castellucci says he wanted to bring this same experience to Atlanta. He began talking with Harris, eventually flying him down to begin prep work on the pop-up the two were planning in the empty retail space next door to Cooks and Soldiers.
Then the pandemic hit.
“It some ways, the pandemic helped solidify the idea behind Mujo, and then the restaurant. It became a perfect timing opportunity to offer this omakase by Jordan as takeout,” says Castellucci. “We knew after that first one we had something special and had found an audience for it.”
Harris continued to offer Mujo as a takeout omakase throughout 2020, occasionally doing small pop-up dinners, while Castellucci secured the lease on the Howell Mill Road space to open Mujo as a restaurant.
Designed by Elizabeth Ingram Studio, Mujo is accented by warm woods and shades of red, gold, and black throughout the space. The sushi and cocktail bars are divided by a large curtain to provide further intimacy.
At 1,500 square feet, Mujo is purposefully designed to shut out the noise of the outside world. It seats just 15 people at the sushi bar with four seatings per night. An evening begins with drinks at the cocktail bar, which seats six people and is only open to those dining at the restaurant.
“After having a cocktail at the bar, guests move to the sushi counter where I do a bit of kappo-style cooking, like a freestyle tasting menu,” Harris says. “This is where I can get creative and play with flavors and offer different types of dishes as you see in a kappo restaurant in Japan.”
A meal at Mujo might start with courses of nigiri prepared in the edomae style, broken up by interludes of hakurei turnip tartlets with smoked fish mousse topped with nori powder and buta nikomi with braised iberico pork.
Each course contains nods to tradition, Harris says, including serving tamagoyaki (Japanese shrimp and egg cake similar to an omelette,) followed by dessert paired with konacha green tea. The current menu features a sundae with roasted sesame ice cream topped with miso rum caramel and Japanese sweet potato and soybean flour.
Over the coming months, Harris plans to offer a second omakase menu using king crab, kuro awabi (Japanese abalone), and Miyazaki beef in dishes. It adds yet another layer of dimension to the dining experience at Mujo and affords Harris the opportunity to get even more creative with the dishes he serves.
“Part of what we’re doing here is bumping up the hospitality level. There’s something intrinsic in human nature that people want to connect over food and drink and want to connect with each other,” Castellucci says. “We’ve missed those connections since the pandemic began, and those connections are hugely important and an important part of what is happening at Mujo.”
691 14th Street, Atlanta. mujoatl.com. Reservations required. $205 per person.
Open Wednesday - Saturday for seatings at 5:30 p.m.; 6:30 p.m.; 8:30 p.m.; and 9:30 p.m.
Public transit information: Accessible via MARTA busses #12 on Howell Mill and #14 on 14th Street.