169 Elgin St
Carlton, VIC 3053
Being back in Melbourne after a whole year of Covid restrictions is no insignificant event. It’s the longest I’ve ever been away from my family or friends, and just thinking about all the restaurants I didn’t get to eat at throughout the year absolutely breaks my heart. So between spending as much time as I can with my loved ones, I’ve had the difficult job of deciding on where to eat in my short week-and-a-half in Melbourne. Thankfully K had a good idea of what he wanted to eat; having been in strict lockdown for about 3 months, he hadn’t had Japanese food for almost as long, and that’s how we ended up at Ima Project Café for brunch.
Ima Project Café has been on my radar intermittently over the last few years, ever since I found out they were one of the few places in Melbourne that serves up a traditional Japanese breakfast. However, being a brunch spot near Lygon St, it ended up being a cute little mix between East and West, and the result was serenely comfortable, with outdoor tables taking full advantage of the tree-lined side streets.
This Skinny Flat White ($4.5) was the first coffee I had since coming back to Melbourne, but unfortunately it was just ok. The roast was dark and verging on bitter, but was partially made up for by the expertly foamed milk, which was thick and silky. Meanwhile, K had the Yuzu Lemonade ($7). This was very, very light on flavour, almost verging on flavoured sparkling water territory. K thought the salt rim was a bit odd at first, but it grew on him as he worked his way through the glass.
I adore a good Japanese Breakfast ($25), and this one had all the trimmings. The most basic form of a Japanese breakfast comes with rice, miso soup, pickles, and a small piece of fish. Whereas mackerel tends to be the most common type used, in this case it was a lightly smoky piece of yuzu and miso-glazed grilled salmon. In addition, we were also treated to a scoop of creamy Japanese potato salad, broccoli with sesame miso paste, and a couple slices of aburi salmon sashimi. Best of all was a small dish of plump, umami-laden stewed mushrooms, which I got to have all to myself because K doesn’t like fungi – score!
Although K’s Ima Don with Chicken ($23) came in a single bowl, there was almost as many elements to it as the breakfast tray. The star of the show was no doubt the karaage chicken, was beautifully crispy with the just the right amount of savoury seasoning, forming a light coating over the tender meat. But there was plenty more goodness on the bed of fluffy white rice: sweet layered omelette, tender roast pumpkin, a gooey onsen egg. And that’s in addition to the standard pickles and seaweed and greenery and whatnot. This is as good as a 3 course meal, all piled beautifully into a single bowl.
Ima Project Café may be a little more expensive than your usual café, but there’s no denying the care given to the food, nor the quality of the ingredients. You wouldn’t come here for a traditional brunch experience, but if you’re after something a little different, and have no hang-ups about what does and doesn’t count as breakfast food, this will be right up your alley.
Rating: 13/20 – brunch zen.
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit.