Ima Project Cafe is in a petite corner spot on Elgin Street less than two minutes’ walk from Cinema Nova. The menu embraces nose-to-tail dining and “ugly vegetables” that supermarkets, fearing customers won’t pay for unattractive produce, refuse to take.
“Recycling and waste management has always been a passion of ours,” says co-owner and interior designer Asako Miura, who was born to Japanese parents and grew up in Bangkok.
Bonito flakes left over from dashi stock are dehydrated and repurposed into furikake seasoning (made with dried fish, sesame seeds and chopped seaweed). Extra prawns from a Panko-crumbed prawn burger are resurrected in a side dish; they’re coated in potato flour, deep-fried, simply seasoned with salt and served with a house-made mayonnaise spiked with cornichons, green Tabasco, capers and shallots. Kombu is also used for soups, then cooked again with soy and dashi and transformed into an onigiri filling. It’s used as a garnish for other dishes, too.
“Anything and everything we can think of [to minimise] waste, we do,” says Miura.
Coffee grounds are turned into compost by local company Reground, and cooking oil is recycled by Green Life Oil.
Miura designed the interior, which revolves around a large pine service counter that stretches almost the full length of the room. Benches, tables and stools are made from plywood. Light streams in from outside.
“The main brief was for it to be super low budget,” Miura says. “That’s the trickiest part. Secondly, trying to use everything local, and thirdly – structure. Using a grid system. We kept it simple. It’s very Japanese, the geometry.”
Japanese cat ornaments, jars of pickled vegetables and bags of herbal tea look on from open shelves. On the windows a series of smiling ugly-vegetable paintings by local artist Kat Chadwick add a touch of whimsy to the otherwise predominantly black and white design.
The menu is by Miura’s partner, co-owner James Spinks, who has worked under executive chef Shaun Presland at Sake. He's also spent time at Sydney's Quay, as commis chef at Supernormal, and cooking at a restaurant in Tokyo for a year, honing his Japanese culinary skills.
Baked eggs arrive in a rich, red miso tomato sugo; and there’s avocado toast with nori paste, kale and furikake. Porridge comes with poached pear, sesame and mitarashi (sweet soy syrup).
For lunch there are set meals that act as daily specials (maybe a slow-cooked beef curry or soba-noodle salad with pickled kohlrabi and yuzu kosho). All come with rice, miso soup and pickles.
To drink, there’s Proud Mary coffee; Mörk hot chocolate; Ramune, a type of Japanese lemonade; and shochu Bloody Marys.
Dishes are served in ceramics by Melbourne-based makers Sarah Schembri and Andrei Davidoff, and delivered on trays made of offcuts from the timber service counter.
“It’s just about the little things,” says Miura. “You don’t have to be perfect.”
Ima Project Cafe
169 Elgin Street, Carlton
(03) 9348 1118
Wed to Fri 7am–4pm
Sat & Sun 8am–3.30pm