Japan remains a top travel destination for Australians, and with more than 45,000 Japan-born people living in Australia (as of the 2021 census), it’s no surprise that the east Asian country’s food culture has had a significant impact on Melbourne’s food scene.
This city loves Japanese cafes, including staples like Collingwood favourite Cibi and Camberwell’s Haiku as well as instant classic Moon Mart, which opened at the tail end of 2022. This year, we’ve seen the arrival of three new exciting Japanese cafes spots that all also happen to be open for dinner.
Ilza Izakaya and Snack Bar
Ilza Izakaya and Snack Bar is a 25-seat spot by husband-and-wife duo Han Oh and Erin Kim. The pair met while working at Nobu Melbourne – Kim in the kitchen, Oh on the floor – and this CBD spot is their fourth Ilza location.
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At Ilza, Kim says the ingredients and technique are mostly Japanese, but she brings in some Korean ingredients, too. One example is its spicy teriyaki sauce, where Kim “twists” Japanese teriyaki sauce with Korean gochujang.
For lunch, there’s corn cheese harumaki, a Korean-American dish combining canned corn, mayonnaise and cheese wrapped in a rice paper roll and fried. There’s also the signature hamburger curry udon, a Japanese curry served with a hamburger patty that is filled with cheese, battered, and then fried.
But dinner at the Little Collins Street location is filled with dishes largely inspired by the izakaya restaurants Kim visited on trips to Osaka. There’s hibachi-grilled yakitori, raw dishes like kingfish crudo and salmon tartare, and croquettes filled with mozzarella and served with jalapeno mayo.
The food pairs well with Oh’s cocktails. Popular offerings include the Peach Hana, which mixes lychee and peach soju with Cointreau and house-made strawberry jam, the vodka highball and the Yuzu Margarita. There’s also a small selection of sake and Japanese beers on offer.
The cafe, which turns into a restaurant at night, specialises in ochazuke, a Japanese dish that sees a broth – traditionally made with tea – poured over a bowl of rice and toppings. Here they skip the tea and instead use a dashi-based broth with chicken stock, roasted sardines and prosciutto. Toppings include shredded chicken, grilled salmon, spicy cod roe and Wagyu beef tataki. For lunch, you can order the ochazuke set with sides of ceviche, karaage, potato salad, an onsen egg and pickles.
Coffee comes from Five Senses, with Feng also sourcing from guest roasters in China and Japan. The team imports Japanese tea such as sencha, hojicha and genmaicha, heroing seasonal leaves.
When the sun goes down, Chiaki transforms into an izakaya that’s also inspired by Australian wine bars. Zhou oversees the menu including snacks and small plates such as savoury shiso leaf madeleines; oysters with mirin dressing; Wagyu tartare with tuna mayo; whipped salmon and cod roe on shokupan; and potato salad with jalapeno, prawn and potato crisps.
Ima Asa Yoru
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. Co-owners Asako Miura and James Spinks packed up and moved into a much more spacious home in Brunswick’s Nightingale Village.
The duo’s new restaurant, Ima Asa Yoru, serves breakfast and lunch all day and izakaya classics with sake by night. (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. These include 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.
Additional reporting by Chynna Santos
Check out our guide to the city’s best Japanese cafes for more.