Carlton is known for its many Italian restaurants and cafes, but a new kid on the Elgin Street block is hoping to switch that up with its Japanese-inspired cafe fare.
Ima Project Cafe, tucked away on the border of Carlton and Fitzroy, is run by owners Asako Miura and James Spinks, who founded the restaurant upon seeing a gap in the market for not only a Japanese cafe, but one that was also committed to sustainability and reducing waste.
"We wanted to teach everyone that it is possible to reduce waste in the food industry," says Asako. "We've actually found a supplier that sells us 'ugly fruits and vegetables' — they are usually thrown into landfill because they are an unusual shape, but taste delicious."
The cafe heroes misshapen fruit and veg — with 'ugly' mascots painted on the window and printed on coffee cups — but its commitment to sustainability extends to proteins, too, with the duo sourcing ethically farmed fish and using predominantly ocean trout (as it is one of the most sustainably farmed).
Speaking of food, there's a full array of Japanese and Aussie treats on offer — and they're anything but ugly. Asako's favourite is the Japanese breakfast ($22), a traditional spread of a steamy miso soup, miso-cured ocean trout, a bowl of sushi rice and pickled seasonal vegetables. It's perfect for anyone who loves a savoury breakfast.
The duo's take on the Melbourne favourite, avocado toast ($17), comes with nori paste, crunchy kale and furikake (an umami-heavy Japanese seasoning consisting of sesame seeds, dried seaweed and dried fish) and is a welcomed twist on an Aussie favourite.
Brunch is available all day, but from 11am onwards, you can also choose from the lunch menu. Here, you'll find daily specials such as the Ima Don ($19) — a rice bowl served with an onsen egg and your choice of karaage chicken, market fish of the day or miso-glazed and grilled eggplant — and a beef katsu burger ($18) with slaw and pickled radish. If you're feeling like something slightly healthier, though, the soda noodle salad ($18) with pickled turnip and yuzu kosho dressing is a firm favourite.
While Spinks' background is in food — having worked at Sydney's Quay and Melbourne's Long Chim — Asako's is in architecture, which is reflected in the cafe's thoughtfully designed interior. Bow windows let in plenty of natural lighting (perfect for a quick study session) and high ceilings and timber panelling give the space a slight Scandinavian feel.
Images: Albert Chandra