Hokkaido is a fascinating part of Japan if you’re into history. Over the centuries it has been an enemy, a wild frontier, a place of occupation and colonisation. Even now, most place names on the island aren’t Japanese at all, but derived from the native (and sadly endangered) Ainu language. This includes Ishikari and Otaru, the namesake of Otaru Suisan.
Of course Hokkaido is also awesome for the foodie, with its bounty of seafood. But places that boast air-flown seafood from Japan are no longer a rarity here. It was more the promise of Ishikari-nabe, a mighty hit of umami, and the presence of a dining companion, that led us here. And oh boy does Otaru deliver.
The restaurant itself is slightly confusing – next door to Ramen Champion, but not part of it. Inside, though, it’s a beautiful space, all gleaming dark wood and spacious booths where you have to take off your shoes to sit. The menu is long and varied, but far from rambling – sharply focused on seafood, with just a few digressions to suit local tastes.
The pal’s taste is a lot better though. She orders hotate as a starter, expecting maybe a pair. Instead we get five fine specimens – plump and cherubic, tasting like a clean rush of seawater. A little dab of wasabi and shoyu adds just a little vigour to their taste.
But after the solo performance, Ishikari-nabe is a much bigger ensemble. At Otaru Suisan they only serve this in a large pot, apparently fit for three to four. Everything is bathed in a finely balanced miso broth – a fitting background to the things it embraces, rich but not cloying.
The main ingredients, placed front and centre, are seafood – more scallops; fat prawns and little, snappy squid, slices of salmon. But there’s also the salmon head. The companion doesn’t eat bony things, which gives me freedom to pick around all the different textures and flavours in the head. From the nuggets of firm cheek flesh to the squiggly, slightly fishy skin and the flips of grey flesh around the skull, everything is held together by the flavour of the broth.
As I said, the pot is meant to be for three or four, but the two of us easily demolish it. And yet we don’t stagger out of the place bloated. Rather it feels just about right – we are just the right level of full, relaxed from all that umami, ready for the rest of the evening. As a meal it was a useful reminder that food is a great restorative presence in life.
201 Victoria Street
Contact no.: 6835 7056
Hours: Daily, 11.30am – 10.30pm