Our waiter’s recommendation: a platter of seafood ready for the tabletop grill featuring some of Shiraoi’s regional summertime specialties. From 12:00: King Crab legs, ocean-fresh salmon, Sailfin Poacher, Willow Leaf Smelt, Thornyhead Rockfish, Surf Clam, Sea Scallop, center, flounder. (Viewer discretion is advised regarding the food photographs that follow.)
When the only two people in Shiraoi we asked for an evening restaurant recommendation immediately suggested the same place even while in the same breath acknowledging that it was too far to reach in a bike trip, our interest was definitely piqued. The first person we asked was our server at Shiraoi’s Kinpen Cafe where we were having a delicious casual seafood lunch and the other was a guide at the local tourist information agency – people who were likely to know where the best food was being served. We lamented the fact that we probably wouldn’t connect with the Kita no Rampu-tei (Northern Lamp) restaurant and resigned ourselves to our standard “Plan B” – ride until we come upon something. That particular night, we grabbed an assortment of sushi and other items at a local supermarket and took them back to our campground for dinner. (And by the way, if you’ve never had supermarket sushi in Japan, don’t be tempted to compare it to the generally not-very-good fare offered in American supermarkets. Supermarket sushi in Japan is superb.)
An excellent choice for casual dining – and a good place to get additional dining recommendations – Kinpen Cafe, Shiraoi.
We broke camp late the following morning at Poroto Campground, hopped on our bikes and headed southwest along the coast toward the city of Noboribetsu.
Frogs, woodpeckers, deer and other wildlife added a nice touch to the quiet, well-maintained campground at Poroto Lake in Shiraoi.
Taking an especially leisurely pace even by our standards, we paused for a while to talk with fishermen trying their luck for flounder and greenling along a harbor wall, had a picnic lunch along another sea wall and stopped frequently to check out African Stonechats and other songbirds which seemed to be everywhere. By the time we’d covered a few miles, the sun was coming down and we were ready for dinner.
There were some nice fish being caught along this harbor wall. The main target was greenling with flounder showing up in good numbers as well.
Longtime admirers of the beautiful, hand-blown glass floats Japanese fishermen used to buoy their nets in the pre-plastic era, an attractive display of large floats hanging from a building drew our attention. We spent a good bit of time photographing the floats before we realized that the building they were attached to was a restaurant, and a bit of time after that before I stepped back and attempted to decipher the name of the place.
“Hey! Kita no Lamp!” I called out to Barbra. “This is the place those people recommended!”
“Oh, wow! What are the odds? Let’s see if we can get a table!” She replied.
We found out later that Kita no Lamp is the top rated of the area’s 80-some restaurants and that it can be tough to get into without a reservation. Still early in the tourist season and late on a mid-week night to boost, luckily we were able to get a table. I don’t know the bar an establishment has to clear to earn Michelin recognition, but what followed was easily one of the best restaurant experiences either one of us have ever had.
Our waiter first presented this pair of ama-ebi (Northern Deepwater Prawn) live, then took them to the kitchen where they were prepared for the table.
Many years ago as a student of things Japanese, I read several dismissive accounts of Japanese cuisine. “Bland” was a term that cropped up more than once. This was before the sushi revolution swept the world, a revolution that was followed by a growing appreciation of the seasonality of foods, the subtleties of different types of noodles, and before terms such as “umami” had become part of the world-wide culinary lexicon. In fact, when I found myself stationed in Japan as a United States Navy sailor, I couldn’t understand what those writers were talking about. Japanese food is amazing.
Ikura (salmon roe) served with slivers of nori and a smidgeon of wasabi atop a bowl of steaming hot rice kept the meal moving forward.
Hokkaido in particular merits food destination status, and while seafood reigns supreme on this island surrounded by cold, clean Pacific seas, there is tender, flavorful beef, pork, lamb and fresh fruits and vegetables that rival the best to be found anywhere. Indeed, much of the food will be minimally seasoned. With the very best ingredients served fresh and at their peak, a light hand with seasoning is ideal.
We had been told that we absolutely must try Shiraoi beef. In fact, a fellow camper at Poroto shared a couple of expertly grilled pieces with us, leaving us wanting more of this incredibly flavorful, fatty, soft beef. Here a steak shares a plate with local pork belly, sausages, marinated chicken, pumpkin, mushrooms and asparagus which was at the peak of perfection during our time in Shiraoi.
And so, relatively early in our summer in Hokkaido and comfortably seated at one the island’s top restaurants, we followed our waiter’s recommendations, ordered too much food, savored every last bit of it, and, with the owner’s permission, ended up pitching our tent on the restaurant’s property and spending the night there.
At this time of year, virtually all of Hokkaido features creamy, fresh-from the ocean Sea Urchin. Here a bowl is served along with salmon sashimi.
While researching this trip, we kept coming across photos of grilled scallops. Our first encounter with this delicacy was served with a thick pat of rich Hokkaido butter. It was fun grilling these shellfish right at our table. When the butter is melted and not a second longer, the clams and scallops are ready. Add a splash of soy sauce… or not.
Northern Lamp’s decor harkened back to earlier times – classic posters, vintage sake jugs, period lamps and lanterns, and seafaring themed relics.
Each table featured a grill which the wait staff filled with hot wood coals when customers were seated.
These sailors may have been assigned to guard the sake jugs behind them, but they seemed to be more interested in the feast we were working on.
We finished the meal with a small scoop of lemon sorbet – and with some effort got up from the table and set up camp. The following morning we woke to the sun rising over the back deck of Kita no Lamp Restaurant.