Project 281 review

Inside the industrial cafe.
Inside the industrial cafe. Photo: Simon Schluter

281 Albert St Brunswick, VIC 3056

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Opening hours Mon-Fri 7am-4pm, Sat-Sun 8am-4pm
Features Gluten-free options, Vegetarian friendly, Family friendly
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9080 6119

Project 281 is ambitious, considered and radical. Here's why. Firstly, there's no avocado. As chef Lachlan Timms says, it's a fruit, it's seasonal and it's not good all year around so why bolt it to a menu.

Instead, edamame (soy beans) are smashed with green chilli, onion and yuzu (a tart citrus) into a textured and tasty green paste then piled over toast with pickles and a seasoned sprinkle of sesame, nori and dried tomato. It's a knowing twist on a Melbourne classic.

Next, the focus is on shared breakfasts. You can keep your eggs to yourself if you'd rather but otherwise, you're encouraged to embrace brunch tapas. Actually, tapas isn't really the right word because the food focus is Japanese, drawing on Timms' three years in Japan. Think izakaya (Japanese pub) by day: that's the vibe.

A pair of taiyaki (fish-shaped pancakes).
A pair of taiyaki (fish-shaped pancakes). Photo: Simon Schluter

And finally, Project 281 is carved out of an old printers' workshop. It eschews the pretty pastel palette of many new cafes in favour of a brutal concrete and steel aesthetic, signalled most boldly by one-tonne blocks stacked and planted in an impressive approximation of an urban jungle.

There's a lot of same-same out there; this 100-seat beast busts out of the pack, rethinking what cafes can be.

The team is strong. Owners Sargon Michael and Connell McGrath met at Glass Den in Coburg, a creative cafe in the old Penthouse jail gatehouse. Michael owned it; McGrath was manager. For the Brunswick project, they brought in on-site coffee roaster Anne Cooper, a legend in the field. Chef Timms was headhunted from St Kilda's Matcha Mylkbar; he's the guy who invented their fun and fabulous vegan "egg" with its coconut and agar albumen and sweet potato yolk.

Soft-shell crab okonomiyaki.
Soft-shell crab okonomiyaki. Photo: Simon Schluter

Timms' food reveres the ancient and delights in the modern. Pickles sit proudly in big jars by the kitchen and are used with judicious joy in many dishes. A room out back burbles with traditional Japanese rice bran fermentations. But there are contemporary flourishes too. A shimmering sphere sits on the bibimbap (Korean rice bowl) and bursts on contact to dress the dish with sweet-sour orange sauce.

Taiyaki are fish-shaped waffles, traditionally filled with red bean paste and sold as street snacks. Timms fills them with nashi pear custard and sets them swimming in a "coral reef" of fresh pear, berries, chocolate rubble and brandy snap biscuits. It's a jaunty rethinking of the ubiquitous hotcake, not to mention the aquarium.

Okonomiyaki is a cabbage pancake; in this case it's topped with whole deep-fried soft-shelled crab, a slaw that conceals a poached egg, and housemade barbecue sauce. It's a big, filling, feed-me dish, nicely executed and deservedly popular.

Smashed edamame on toast.
Smashed edamame on toast. Photo: Simon Schluter

Project 281 also impresses with its matter-of-fact approach to dietary requirements. All the bread is gluten-free (and, even more surprisingly, it's good) and there's plenty for those avoiding alliums (onion and garlic) and animal products. The kids menu is a nugget-free zone.

There's a sustainability focus too: coffee cups are made from recycled coffee bean husks; they feel smooth and cosy and they're insulating too. Most of the power is generated by solar panels on the roof. A mezzanine herb garden is on the way to wow. Coffee grounds are composted in a nearby garden.

Lest you think it's all sounding a bit worthy, please know that the flow of natural light was designed with Instagram in mind. It's crazy how many gorgeous venues are lit so you can only take crap food photos – yet again, Project 281 comes through.

Rating: Four stars (out of five)