Garlic dining at its finest in Kagurazaka
From Mississippi to the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia to Syria, its pungent prowess graces tables across the globe. Yes, garlic is as multicultural as it is multifaceted, given its antioxidant and antibacterial properties, not to mention its ability to ward off creatures of the night.
Hajime No Ippo is one of Tokyo’s original ninniku restaurants (hard to believe there are actually many such institutions) located in the entertainment district of yore, Kagurazaka. Established in 1995, nearly all of its dishes contain “white fukuchi” garlic, an esteemed varietal from Tenmabayashi, Aomori Prefecture.
The dining room has only 20 seats, including about six at the counter/bar. Its compact size means you might be sitting at a table next to strangers, but somehow this doesn’t interfere with the intimate, candle-lit ambience. The menu is bilingual and, to an extent, so is the staff.
Be sure to take a closer look at the items decorating the walls and shelves. Hajime No Ippo has, over its near 20 years in business, seemingly accumulated every piece of garlic paraphernalia known to man. Our companion picked up an item thinking it was a salt shaker only to discover it was actually a garlic-shaped timer. Try not to make the same mistake.
Cast your halitosis fears aside and consider the fixed menu. At ¥2,980 per person, minimum two people, you can choose two starters, one fish or meat, one pasta or rice, and two desserts. The cuisine here is mostly Mediterranean with heavy Italian influences. One of the greatest things about this restaurant, aside from the consensus that all dishes are delicious, is that the portions are generous, particularly by local standards. Expect to leave this place stuffed (and happy).
Though garlic is omnipresent, none of the dishes seem to be overpowering. Each table receives a plate of garlic bread to start (perhaps to justify the ¥400 table charge) which you’ll want to save for dipping in your dishes to come. Three red and three white house wines are served by the glass (¥580-980), and if you’re really keen on the theme, you can opt for a garlic-inspired cocktail or garlic-infused white wine (¥880).
For starters we tried the shellfish escargot (¥1,080) with butter sauce, which dip-aholics will adore. The fish carpaccio with garlic ginger sauce is like bathed sashimi. The Iwachu pork and garlic skewers are also a nod to Japanese cuisine, though the meat marinade and whole garlic cloves present a departure from your usual yakitori fare (each ¥980).
For the main event, the grilled tuna neck with balsamic butter (¥1,480) is a standout. The cut is not to be found in many places—who knew that tuna had necks? The crunchy fried garlic topping provides a textural complement to the soft flesh.
Our pick among the carbohydrates was the angel-shrimp garlic cream linguine (¥1,380) with a sinfully thick, tomato-tinged sauce that will make you glad you saved that wedge of garlic bread.
For intrepid foodies, the grand finale should be the garlic ice cream (¥580). Not for the faint of stomach, its vanilla-bean base is littered with sizeable chunks of caramelized garlic and topped with a whole braised clove. After that, you can leave Hajime No Ippo with the assurance no bloodsucking beasts will threaten you for at least a few days.