Deeper into sushi

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paulr@sfbg.com

Opera Plaza doesn't look like restaurant heaven, and, for the most part, it isn't. The development's long-running success story is Max's Opera Café, a faux deli that deals in mountainous portions, with dill pickles and fries. Over the years there have been a few places with more style, among them Carlo Middione's Vivande and Bruce Cost's Monsoon, but in neither case was traction established, and neither concern lasted long.

The crash of Monsoon isn't all that difficult to understand in retrospect. Whereas Vivande at least had a big sign overlooking the busy corner of Franklin and Golden Gate Avenues to let potential patrons know it was there, Monsoon (which opened soon after the 1989 earthquake) was buried deep in the complex and wasn't all that easy to see even from the interior courtyard, complete with its Stalinist concrete and fountain. Here, too late, are my directions: Enter the courtyard from Van Ness, with A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books on your right, pass the fountain, and shear to your right as you approach the movie theater. You will see a neon sign and, beyond some glass doors, will find yourself at the host's station in a restaurant, and while the restaurant won't be Monsoon (which closed early in 1993), it will be pretty good. It is Shima Sushi and represents a return to respectability for a centrally located yet obscure site that had fallen into slightly tacky gloom.

A postulate I have been forming recently is that many troubled and oft-flipped restaurant spaces find a stable life serving sushi and other Japanese food, and Shima Sushi bolsters the argument. It helps, certainly, that uncooked fish has long been a form of fast food in Japan, for the large lunchtime crowds at Shima consist, one supposes — to judge by the office garb and accoutrements — largely of people who work in the neighborhood's complex of municipal, state, and federal offices, and they are visibly under some time pressure. Shima accommodates them gracefully, with bento boxes ($7.95 for a choice of two items, $8.95 for three) featuring such delicacies as tuna sashimi and crisp-skinned, smoky-sweet salmon teriyaki, along with miso soup, mixed green salad, and bean sprouts with scallions. (There is also a vegetarian bento box.) Other choices include a sushi lunch special ($8.95), with a California roll (real crab is $1 extra and worth it) and a mix of sushi pieces likely to include tuna, hamachi, salmon, and shrimp. Those averse to raw flesh have recourse to various forms of teriyaki, tempura, donburi, and udon. Service is quite swift and polite, but the staff is too busy hurrying to do much hovering, and once you're served, they're likely to let you be unless you make some want or need known. Then they do come running.

By evening, the mood of the restaurant visibly softens: The light seems a bit yellower, the blond wood of the Japanese-style partitions a bit warmer, the bubbles in the aquarium a bit bigger and lazier. The patronage, too, mellows — but then, people do live in and around Opera Plaza, and for them, Shima is a jewel of a neighborhood restaurant, with a favorable quality-to-price ratio and enough room to accommodate walk-ins while keeping the noise level reasonable. The dinner menu resembles an expanded version of the lunch menu; the chief additions are a list of specialty rolls and a trio of "special combinations" — blow-out sushi festivals served in wooden boats. You order according to the size of your party; we were three and opted for the Shima special ($75, "serves three or more") but quailed when the ship approached the table looking like one of those freighters you sometimes see sailing through the Golden Gate, so laden with booty as to be nearly submerged.

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