By David Nelson
Photos by Sara Norris
A San Diego-bred real estate investor who segued into the restaurant business in middle age, Tim Aaron was wondering what to do with the mammoth, aging building that once housed Coronado 's No. 1 Navy hangout, Mexican Village Restaurant.
He remembers the precise, curving stretch of the Coronado bridge he was driving on when he had a Eureka! moment and asked himself, "How about a teppanyaki place like Benihana's?"
His extravagant answer opened mid-May as a palatial yet somehow downhome Japanese steakhouse at 126 Orange Ave., just a block from the Ferry Landing, the bay and a soaring vision of downtown San Diego. There's not a scrap of view from inside, and that's the point: Shima is a world of its own - a fantasy of a restaurant with amazing décor; a cooking style that verges on performance art; and a mood designed to be welcoming, relaxing, entertaining and fun.
"'Shima' means 'island,' and we're on an island," Aaron says. "When I was considering what to build here, I wondered what would bring out the families from Coronado and San Diego."
While the hibachi menu distinguishes Shima, its sushi and inventive specialty rolls are also a powerful draw. Two vast rooms house a total of nine teppanyaki (cook-top) tables and a sizable bar and lounge. A smaller back room dedicated to private parties and corporate events houses two additional tables and a private sound system primed to play whatever the client desires.
"I had all the say-so on the design," says Aaron, who invested much thought as well as major bucks. Of the glass wall that separates the host desk from the main teppanyaki room, he says, "You come into the lobby and look through the glass, where I tease you with the sight of a guy cooking on the other side."
Under a lighted-from-above acrylic ceiling printed with a very Japanese pattern of leaves and branches, the cooks - who rotate among the tables - double as entertainers, juggling sharp knives, creating flaming alcohol "volcanoes" on the flat grills and narrating the action as they slice and flash-cook choice cuts of steak, shell and finfish, chicken, and vegetables. The specialty combinations they produce have local names and ascend price-wise from the $31 Balboa, which pairs teppan-cooked New York steak and chicken breast, to the Coronado King, a $55 feast of prime Wagyu steak and cold-water lobster tail.
In the lounge, lifelike potted Japanese cherry trees in full pink bloom hang from sandblasted rafters above a walkway that separates more teppanyaki tables from a bar backed by glowing nature scenes projected from behind seemingly thousands of strips of LED lights.
"It looks so close you could get poison oak," Aaron says.
Now, the aspiring restaurateur isn't noodling around with his ambitions. A second Shima is already in development in Burbank, Calif., a TV capital that attracts lots of tourists, and Aaron hopes for an Aloha! moment by opening a third in Honolulu.
"When I got my vision for the place, it was over-the-top, and now I want to build more," he says.
Shima Japanese Steakhouse
126 Orange Ave., Coronado