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.
"We’ll never be able to eat all that," said one of my fellow musketeers and one justly renowned for doughtiness in the face of huge amounts of food. As things turned out, we did empty the ship of its cargo, which the other musketeer, to my right, perhaps a bit less doughty, described as "tuna-heavy." As indeed it was, not that there was anything wrong with that. We worked our way through nigiri and sashimi editions of maguro, toro, and albacore (underrated; always fabulously buttery), along with salmon, red snapper (thin sheets of pearly flesh splashed with rose), and bonito, whose ribbing gave each piece the look of a chunk of burst all-terrain tire on the shoulders of a mountain highway. Astern, the ship had been laden with rolls, among them Super California — strips of barbecued eel laid atop rice disks stuffed with avocado and snow crab — and Lion King, a California roll wrapped in salmon, then baked in foil like a potato.
In due course the denuded ship sailed away, guided by a smiling server who nonetheless shook her head in polite awe at what we had accomplished. A few moments later she showed up with small bowls of green tea ice cream: reward or penalty? Neither; the ice cream was included in the deal, to be shipped under separate cover. The doughty musketeer made a face at the prospect of green tea ice cream but polished it off since, in the end, a sweet is a sweet is a sweet, especially if at no extra cost. SFBG
Dinner: Mon.–Thurs. and Sat., 5–9:30 p.m.; Fri., 5–10 p.m.
Lunch: Mon.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
601 Van Ness, SF
Beer and wine