Some strong choices

Shima melds tastes, traditions well
By BRIAN DUFF  |  November 25, 2009

SAUCE MAKES THE MEAL Pan-genre cuisine blends many flavors. Photos: REBECCA GOLDFINE

A pan-Asian restaurant comes in handy if you are having trouble making a decision. But thanks to several openings in the last year, Portlanders looking for a menu with several Asian cuisines will have to make a choice. On the outskirts of town is the sprawling Kon-Asian Bistro (which the Phoenix will get to next week). Downtown in the Old Port is the cozy, chef-owned Shima.

Shima’s eclecticism is not the product of an effort to please all tastes, but rather the peripatetic development of a single palate. Chef David Shima is from a Japanese-Hawaiian family, but spent many years in Paris. His menu shows it, including traditional sushi and traditional French, with Hawaiian hints of Polynesian and Chinese along the way. The combination sounds unusual, but it can work well. Boston’s Elephant Walk, opened by a former Cambodian diplomat who settled in France, pairs classical French with Cambodian so nicely that Julia Child used to visit, and would even potter back to the kitchen to chat up the chefs.

At Shima you will do well if you think like Julia. While she has the reputation for having made French cuisine accessible, she never made it simple. At Shima the best dishes featured French complexities — in particular the chef’s very Parisian mastery of delicately balanced sauces. I have spent years perfecting my own lemon-caper sauce, but it pales in comparison to the one Shima paired with mussels, scallop, and cod. The buttery creamy broth was subtle enough not to overwhelm the fish. The capers had opened up in the heat, and their tender sharpness enhanced each bite.

A seared tuna appetizer was similarly redeemed by its sauce. The fish — a generous portion of big-eye, a species popular among Hawaiians — was seared long enough to lose any of the creamy texture of raw tuna that we have grown so used to. A return to the pre-sushi-craze tuna-as-steak approach is a bold move these days, and on first bite the dish did seem a bit bland. But digging into the sauce beneath — made from soy and orange, and slowly absorbing the flavors of the slices of pineapple that came with the dish, gave the fish a richer and sweeter appeal.

At $10, an entrée of Japanese roast pork is one of the best deals in town. A generous serving of sliced pork was tender enough, but also offered a bit of the pleasant chew of a Chinese char sui. The thin dark-red sauce intensified the effect, with notes of chilies, rice wine, cinnamon, and soy. It was served with frenchified sides of roasted whole carrots and small potatoes.

We were a bit less pleased with dishes that lacked these terrific sauces. A miso glaze, for example, did not do enough to redeem a rather bland piece of roasted cod — though we did enjoy the thin slices of potato, greasy enough to resemble a big soggy chip, that came with it. A yellowtail sushi roll was pretty unexciting, but prepared with generous slices of fresh-seeming fish. The sushi options in general were straightforward and well done, but lacked something in terms of imaginative selections and little touches.

Dishes are plated with style at Shima and the space, mostly brick and orange-toned wood, is elegant in the low light. The drop ceiling and big television are a bit of a drawback. Shima himself mans the sushi bar and pops down to visit with the cooks from time to time. The service is friendly and conscientious, though it may take the staff more time to really know the cuisine. When our waiter explained one sauce we asked her, “Really?” We all turned to Chef Shima, who smiled and shook his head: “Not really,” he said. It’s all the better that way. With sauces like these the fun is in deciding what you think is in them. For those of us who can’t make or stick to decisions, Shima offers some pleasant non-sequiturs: go out for Asian, and order the French food.

Brian Duff can be reached

SHIMA | 339 Fore St, Portland | Mon-Fri 11:30 am-3 pm and 5:30-10 pm; Sat 5:30-10 pm | Visa/MC/Disc | 207.773.8389

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