On a Carlton corner, Ima Project Café is breathing new life into smashed avo. Furikake (a mixture of sesame seeds, chopped seaweed, salt and sugar) and nori paste (processed seaweed boiled down with soy sauce) are usually sprinkled on rice, but Ima slathers crunchy sourdough with the nori paste and then sprinkles the furikake on top of avocado. The result is a salty and savoury breakfast dish unlike any iteration of the creamy toast topper you’ll find in Melbourne.
Japanese twists on archetypal breakfast dishes can also be found in Ima’s miso-infused tomato baked eggs and the porridge drizzled with Mitarashi syrup, a traditional Japanese sauce made from soy sauce and sugar. Plus, the classic Japanese breakfast set of fish and rice is on the menu. But Ima isn’t just reinventing Melbourne breakfast. Lunchtime options kick-start at 11am, meaning you can get curry rice or a katsu burger before noon.
An ebi katsu (crumbed prawn) burger stars on the specials board. Sandwiched between sweet and crumbly brioche buns courtesy of Cobb Lane are large breaded prawns laced with a velvety taru taru sauce, a Japanese-style tartare that has more heft than its western equivalent due to the inclusion of hard boiled eggs. You won’t need serviettes to dry off your oil-slicked fingers with this deceptively light burger – the prawns are light and crisp. Adhering to Ima’s no-waste policy, the burger is served alongside deep-fried prawn heads that you can eat whole – the shell is rendered so crunchy and brittle that it dissolves in your mouth in a salt-spiked mouthful.
The Japanese lunch set, which comes with sticky koshihikari rice, pickled vegetables, miso soup and a protein main, changes daily. On our visit the centrepiece is korokke (croquettes), a smooth and creamy mix of mashed potato and ground beef encased in crunchy panko crumbing. Drizzle as much treacly tonkatsu sauce from the accompanying ramekin as you’d like for a lingering sweet aftertaste, and it's not a bad idea to add an onsen egg.
Ima is the brainchild of couple-turned-business partners James Spinks and Asako Miura. The cafe’s considered space and menu is the culmination of Spinks’ experience cheffing at restaurants such as Quay, Sake and Supernormal as well as the half-Thai, half-Japanese Miura’s background in architecture and interior design.
The beauty of Ima’s immaculately crafted food is matched by the locally made ceramics on which it’s served, but they're using ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables (Asako reframes them as ‘cute’) from fresh produce merchant Scicluna’s to save them from being consigned to landfill. Ima’s commitment to undesirable produce runs so deep that its mascots are lumpy, misshapen fruit patterned across its windows and coffee cups – although in line with Ima’s philosophy, you get a 50 cent discount if you bring your own cup. Food trays and chopstick rests are fashioned out of timber offcuts, and the coffee grounds that are repurposed by environmental company Reground into compost.
Ima Project Café has the feel of a pop-up restaurant. Seemingly unfinished wooden interiors and a bare, unadorned space gives the café a fleeting quality that’s at odds with its fully developed menu. But if the hordes of people crowded into its small confines are anything to go by, Ima Project Café is here to stay.