Melbourne brunch fans were surprised when Carlton’s beloved Ima Project Cafe – the city’s standard-bearer for Japanese breakfast – closed late last year at what seemed to be the peak of its popularity. Thankfully, it wasn’t the end of the Ima story.
“People probably saw us as a successful business … but at the end of the day, it [wasn’t] an eggs-on-toast place. The food we served was extremely labour-intensive, but [we] still had to charge the same amount as eggs Benedict. It was not sustainable,” co-owner Asako Miura tells Broadsheet. “But we loved it so much that we were wondering how we can make this work without killing ourselves.”
The solution was night-time trade. The only problem was this didn’t suit the tiny kitchen and cramped dine-in space of the Carlton terrace. So Miura and chef-owner James Spinks packed up and moved into a much more spacious home in Brunswick’s Nightingale Village with what they see as the natural evolution for their venue.
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The duo’s new restaurant, Ima Asa Yoru, serves breakfast and lunch all day, with a separate dinner menu coming in about a month. (“Asa” means morning, and “yoru” means night). Fans of the old site will be glad to know you can still get the signature teishoku (a Japanese set meal of rice, miso soup, pickles and your choice of either fish or eggplant), alongside a host of new dishes.
There’s chirashi, a bowl of seasoned sushi rice topped with kingfish, tamagoyaki (rolled omelette) and rice puffs; mentaiko (cod roe) on Little Cardigan shokupan; tonjiru, a pork stew with soy milk; and mazesoba, a dry noodle dish with minced pork, vegetables and an onsen egg.
In the kitchen, Spinks has traded a small hibachi grill for a bigger Brick Chef hearth. “Because we’ve got this brand-new kitchen … we can do dishes that we always wanted to do in our old kitchen but [couldn’t because] it was such a shoebox,” Miura says.
As for dinner, the team is waiting on a few moving parts to fall into place – including a liquor license so they can serve sake, cocktails and Japan’s Nama beer on tap. The menu is still in development but will be completely different to the daytime offering. “It’ll definitely be izakaya-style, so designed to share. We want to use the fire a lot … We might offer a Japanese-style steak with a nice soy-based dipping sauce,” says Miura.
Miura, an architect by trade, worked closely with Breathe Architects. The team hasn’t tried to replicate the homey vibe of the original cafe. Instead, the new restaurant has a sophisticated design with sleek lines, contrasting colours and dim, warm lighting courtesy of hanging spherical paper lanterns.
A few metres down is Ima Pantry, which the pair opened in April. The brick-hued grocer features fresh produce, specialty food items and household supplies, plus Japanese condiments like soy sauce, mirin and sake vinegar in bulk. The cafe attached to Ima Pantry is mostly takeaway, with a handful of seats – stop by for onigiri, Japanese toasties and a roll with chicken nanban and tartare sauce.
Ima Asa Yoru
1 Duckett Street, Brunswick
Tue to Sun 8am–3pm
9 Duckett Street, Brunswick