Ima Project Cafe review

Pork tonkatsu lunch set with hot mustard, rice, miso and vibrant house pickles.
Pork tonkatsu lunch set with hot mustard, rice, miso and vibrant house pickles. Photo: Simon Schluter

169 Elgin St Carlton, VIC 3053

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Opening hours Mon and Wed-Fri 7am-4pm; Sat-Sun 8am-3.30pm
Features Licensed, Outdoor seating
Phone 03 9348 1118

When a chef alum of Supernormal, Quay and Sake and a Japanese interior designer get together and open a cafe it means great food with a strong ethical bent in a beautifully considered setting. That, at least, is the lesson from Ima, a corner cafe bringing the growing off-Lygon buzz to Elgin Street, where James Spinks and Asako Miura have conjured the perfect antidote to Melbourne's cafe me too-ism and are converting all comers to the Japanese cafe way, one onsen egg at a time.

The space

It plodded along as a fairly generic cafe until Ima's arrival introduced the corner space to pine, plywood and simplicity. Light and bright, it marries the good bones and high ceilings of the Victorian-era shopfront to an uncluttered, geometrical and foliage-friendly aesthetic. Solo diners can grab a stool along the window, while kerbside tables on Drummond Street sit snugly under the iron lacework awning.

Pine, plywood and simplicity inside Ima Project Cafe.
Pine, plywood and simplicity inside Ima Project Cafe. Photo: Simon Schluter

The food

You won't find bacon on this menu, but you will find ocean trout, grilled on the hibachi under a galvanising lick of miso and lime. Order it as the basis of a Japanese breakfast (with rice, miso soup and pickles) or as a stand-alone side dish.

Golden-fried pork tonkatsu makes a classic lunch set, with hot mustard, rice, miso and the vibrant house pickles, while a chicken kara-age burger marries marinated fried bird with fresh wombok, avo, mayo and pickles for a jaw-dislocating number on brioche.

Furikake sprinkled avo toast with optional onsen egg.
Furikake sprinkled avo toast with optional onsen egg. Photo: Simon Schluter

The ethical, minimal-waste philosophy sees the kitchen use "ugly" fruit and vegetables (not that you'd tell once Spinks has finished with them) and backs it all with a serious recycling program for everything from oil to coffee grounds.

The brew

Proud Mary's Humbler blend is for coffee aficionados who like to feel the exact moment the caffeine enters their bloodstream. It's bold, chocolate-fudgey and beautiful, with extra points for the covetable cups and crockery made by a couple of Melbourne-based ceramicists. There's a rotating menu of single origin beans for the batch brew and three choices of green tea adhering to the Japanese theme.

The booze

A shochu Bloody Mary makes a thematic hangover buster, plus there's Asahi and Peroni, along with a house red, white and sparkling wine.

Avo index

Strong. Avo on toast goes Nippon-style with a Vegemite-like lick of nori paste on grunty Cobb Lane sourdough and a thicket of house-made furikake seasoning with nutritional yeast pulling the trigger on the umami bomb, $17. Just add a runny onsen egg, from happy Burd Eggs.

LovingCan I say everything? OK, everything.

Not getting The $5 toastie. So cheap. Are their accountants angry?

Overheard "This pork tonkatsu is making me thirsty."

Cafe latte $4

Score 17/20

Food 9/10; Coffee 4/5; Experience 4/5