Project 281 made it to our list of meet and eat places on our latest trip to Melbourne due to its good ratings and interesting menu. Despite Melbourne being a brunch haven, you can still get to the point where many cafe menus seem to have similar options that you have already eaten before, either there or elsewhere. Somehow, despite semi-regular jaunts to Melbourne, and our friends living in Melbourne for years, none of us had been there before.
Heading there on an overcast weekend morning, we did have to wait a little while for a table, but it wasn’t too prolonged a time. It was quite easy to get to from the city, a direct tram out to Brunswick (though quite a few stops), and a short walk. Out the front of the black painted brick building were muted gold letters that announced “Project 281. Eat. Drink. Founder Coffee Co.” From across the road and the direction we were walking though, the much smaller black on white sign perpendicular to that was actually easier to discern.
Walking in, we found ourselves in a large, warehouse-style open space. It seemed to just stretch on back, with more seating visible on a platform level above. Besides the expansive space, the other components that immediately caught attention were the large concrete cubes arranged at the entrance and elsewhere in the space as a divider, like a giant’s toy blocks, and the lush indoor greenery scattered just about everywhere.
Skylights in the roof let filtered natural light in, brightening the space. The high ceilings and concrete floors were a reminder of its warehouse beginnings, and the simple metal chairs and wooden tabletops continued the industrial theme.
The table was set with amber-coloured glasses and a bottle of water, and a folded menu with leafy images printed on the front to match the surroundings at each place setting.
Opening the folded pages, we found the dishes that had swung our vote when we had been trying to decide where to go. There were all day breakfast and lunch items (although we weren’t exactly clear why there needed to be a division then, if they were all available across all mealtimes), many with Japanese and Korean-influenced flavours. Although the menu as a whole had drawn us there, narrowing the options down to pick a dish each was a little more challenging. (For those of us who don’t live in Melbourne, the FOMO is real.) We did eventually manage to decide though.
We started with caffeine first, with some great expectations, as Project 281 also roasts their own coffee, under the brand Founder Coffee Co.
The coffees were served in Huskee cups, environmentally friendly vessels made from coffee husks. They had an interestingly corrugated shape, and had a lighter, plasticky feel, rather than the weight of glass or ceramic cups one is usually served sit-down coffees in.
The flat white and iced latte both had good strength, and had fruity acidic notes, as is the popular Melbourne coffee flavour.
We ordered a dish of Fried chicken to share. This was listed as coming with ponzu, pickled ginger, slaw, crispy shallots, Thai basil, chilli, and mayo. This was done in the Korean fried chicken style, with crunchy coating, and tender meat beneath that. The coating was seasoned and quite flavourful even without dipping it in the accompanying sauce.
(Unfortunately, the only picture of the Fried chicken is right at the end, with the other dishes..)
Fritters are always a tempting option on the menu, particularly when they turn out to not just be pancakes with other ingredients. After ascertaining that they were proper fritters, we ordered the Halloumi and pea fritters off The Project 281 menu. The dish had halloumi, pea, and mint fritters, with freekeh grain, mint, radish and broad bean salad, labne, and poached egg. We added the extra option of bacon to make sure that it would be substantial enough (we were hungry). It was neatly presented on a glossy black stoneware dish, the browned fritters placed on a bed of the freekeh and labne and topped with a nest of greens. The cooked curls of bacon were placed just on the side of these. The fritters were a roasted brown shade, and lived up to their visual promise, being satisfyingly crunchy on the outside. Despite resting on what was a creamy sweet corn labne base, they didn’t get soggy. They held together well, and had a good proportion of ingredients inside. There was bulk from the freekeh grain, and some chew. Sweet corn kernals in the labne and pomegranate seeds scattered over the dish gave it a different crunch. It was a good mix of textures when had together. The poached egg had a runny yolk, as hoped. The bacon added saltiness and more protein, and did make the dish seem more complete.
The Octopus Hash was the dish that had particularly caught our attention when we were looking through menus. Octopus is a less common component of brunch dishes, and the combination sounded interesting. It had Korean spicy octopus, poached egg, spicy red pepper smear, hash brown, and a herb salad. It stated on the menu that this was their signature dish, which was all the more reason to order it. It was plated with the octopus tentacle clearly as the feature component, laid atop the hash brown and smear of sauce. If you have nightmares of creatures from the deep, this probably isn’t the dish for you. Otherwise, it was a vibrantly coloured dish, with the reddish-brown octopus, golden orange pepper sauce, magenta strips of pickled cabbage, and nest of flame-hued sliced red pepper strips making for lively pictures. The octopus was nicely cooked, so it had a little springiness, but was not tough. The marinade had some heat to it, without being too spicy. Similarly, although we had been a little concerned that the the spicy red pepper smear might be overwhelming, it wasn’t too fiery, and was in fact a good balance of savoury and sweet, and a tomatoey flavour. The hash brown was more of a block rather than the flat McDonald’s or oven-reheatable hash browns. While it had some crunch on the outside and was soft potato on the inside, we felt that the ratio of crisp outside to squishy interior could have been higher.
Also ordered at the table were the Truffle and Hash Scramble, which had white truffle spiked scrambled eggs, mushrooms, feta, hash brown, and mayo, and the Poke Bowl, which had marinated salmon sashimi, sesame rice, greens, pickled ginger, smashed avocado and beans, tomatoes, wasabi pea crumb, wakame, and Aojiso dressing. The verdict on those were that they were also pretty well done dishes.
Overall, we enjoyed our meal at Project 281. There was plenty on the menu to satisfy both the adventurous and those after something a little more typical. It was a nice, roomy setting, and even though there were quite a number of other people there, it didn’t feel cramped.
Price point: $16 to $23 for the breakfast and lunch dishes more substantial than toast and spreads, excluding extra charges for adding bacon and other things to dishes where they weren’t already included. Side dishes $4 to $12 (the chicken was $12).
Value: About what seems the standard price for a Melbourne brunch. Not cheap..but alright for what you got.
Address: 281 Albert Street, Brunswick
Phone: 03 8658 3537
Website: Project 281 Cafe