Lockdowns have pushed sandwiches in Melbourne to a whole new level as chefs vie to showcase their talent and heritage between two slices of bread.
The march of the star-powered sandwich started earnestly in 2017. Back then we were celebrating the rise of entire meals stuffed between bread where every element had been carefully roasted, baked or pickled in house. We already had chefs like Matt Wilkinson, Scott Pickett and Eileen Horsnell putting their name to signature sandwiches.
Successive lockdowns have driven our sandwich obsession to even greater heights. Socially distanced sandwiches taste like freedom, and creativity has flourished in the sphere as restaurants and solo chefs vie for attention.
What we have ended up with are sandwiches with serious personalities, a reflection of the creators and of the times.
Chef Thi Le of Richmond's Anchovy has decided to sate huge demand for her banh mi, which began last year, by opening a full-time shop.
Barry Susanto, a former Navi restaurant chef who was dissatisfied with the lack of Indonesian food in Melbourne, has put a taste of his heritage between bread.
At Greta in the CBD, two hospitality professionals have united their love of European dining by giving the sandwich the sophisticated sit-down setting it deserves.
There's never a bad time to be a sandwich fan in this town, but now we're riding a whole new wave.
Shokupan (Japanese milk bread) stole the show in 2020 and it's not hard to see why. There's something about the perfect cubic loaves, with their fluffy, memory foam-like centres, that evoke a sense of order in a world of chaos.
It's all about that shok-factor at Japanese bakery-cafe Le Bajo, based in the North Melbourne warehouse of owner Jason Gunawan (co-owner of Bali's Potato Head), with chef Kantaro Okada at the helm.
Shok-factor: Warehouse cafe Le Bajo specialises in Japanese shokupan. Photo: Eddie Jim
Toasts are 4cm thick and slathered with everything from spicy cod roe to sweet red bean paste, and you can get whole or half loaves of shokupan to go.
While they do a textbook fried chicken katsu sandwich with their own miso sauce (pictured), please veer left for the showstopper spicy tako (octopus). Chunks of battered tentacle are slicked in spicy mayo with a fine tickle of shredded iceberg and onion.
And if you want to soothe your eyes and soul, they do Japanese fruit sandwiches, where sweet whipped cream frames strawberries and banana in perfect symmetry. Ahhh.
Where: 8-14 Howard Street, North Melbourne, lebajo-milkbar.square.site
Best vego option: Japanese curry on toast.
Best side order: Teriyaki butter dirty fries.
They also love: Saint Dreux, the CBD katsu specialist.
Elisa and Adam Mariani's shop on Flinders Lane might already have landed on your radar. That chicken sandwich with hollandaise, pickled onions and herbs; those puffy folded eggs with green sauce in a glossed brioche roll, and the mortadella ciabatta with mild scamorza smacked with a salty-bitter schmear of olive and anchovy tapenade received quite a bit of love.
But the whole package is evolving (or trying to, despite lockdown woes). With its luxe leather, olive greens and brassy trim, aperitivo hours featuring crisp martinis, white burgundies and non-sandwich fodder like farro salads and the odd spaghetti, Greta is now running until 8pm on Thursday and Friday nights. It's one of the best places for a business (or party) meeting at the windy end of the CBD.
But I digress. You're here for sandwiches and the winter special (pictured) of beef cheek, pesto and mozzarella stuffed in a crusty Ned's roll to dunk in napoli sauce like a New Orleans French dip? Outrageously yes.
Where: 450 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, gretamelbourne.com.au
Best vego option: Stracciatella, cavolo nero, zucchini, Greta verde and chilli oil on focaccia (or sub cheese for house-pickled green tomatoes to make it vegan).
Best side: Get a glass of pinot with that beef cheek baguette.
They also love: Applehead Deli, Mentone.
Say one thing for snap lockdowns, it provides good market testing for the sandwich shop you planned to open anyway. How fortuitous for Mike Byard and chef Mike Harrison who run Pretty Little wine diner on Carlisle Street, Balaclava. Bala Sanga, an idea they had last year, will formally open by late June (fingers crossed) in a garage behind the restaurant and it is geared to meet regular lunchtime needs.
Sure, there's gutsy attention-grabbing stuff like the extra saucy meatball sub, with garlic butter, a herb blitz, asiago and grana padano cheese in a white roll that smooshes together into a rich, comforting mess.
But when life is less dire, there's everyday succour like a salad sandwich on tangy rye with good sharp cheddar and house-pickled beetroot (the liquor of which is used to make pickled eggs as a side), boosting its freshness.
The secret weapon, however, is a classic curried egg sandwich on soft white sourdough with crunchy cos and red onion. Rain, shine or lockdown, you can't argue with that.
Where: Rear laneway, 296 Carlisle Street, Balaclava, balasanga.com
Best vego option: Curried egg or salad sandwich.
Best side: Beetroot pickled eggs.
They also love: The raclette and potato toastie from Maker and Monger, Prahran Market.
Warkop's chicken talimang sandwich. Photo: Chris Hopkins
Ayam taliwang when it's at home (which is usually on the Indonesian island of Lombok) is a grilled chicken dish featuring ginger and shrimp paste. But in the backstreets of Richmond it's one of Jakarta-born Barry Susanto's star sandwiches at Warkop, his "warung kopi" (small coffee shop).
Susanto is a protege of Julian Hills' fine diner Navi in Yarraville, and the road-testing he did on the team there last year shows. That taliwang star sees a thick strata of chicken that has been slow-cooked in aromatic spices until it is juicy and shreddable, paired with green tomato, rocket and cheese.
There's a (kind-of) reuben, with rendang spices sneaking into the classic combination of pastrami and cheese.
But I'm most excited for the vegan party that puts the makings of a gado gado salad into a sandwich context. Nutty tempeh, tofu, satay sauce and the juicy crunch of bean sprouts is an all-round winner, vegan or not.
Where: 12 Risley Street, Richmond, warkop.com.au.
Best vego option: Kaya toast for breakfast, and gado gado all day.
Best side: Duke's coffee by co-owner, gun barista Erwin Chandra.
They also love: Pork crackling banh mi from To's Bakery, Footscray.
Matteo's sandwiches are stuffed inside ciabatta (pictured) or Vietnamese-style rolls. Photo: Parker Blain
It's a bright-lit port on blustery Altona days, shelves stacked high with continental canned and dried goods. Some of this feels decorative, but the freezers of pastizzi, gnocchi, Zanelli cheeses and Lescure butter make it a handy Italian-Australian micro-market.
The sandwiches are all built around the counter goods – mortadella, with olives or not; good prosciutto – which you might also come here to buy.
Or you might get a Matteo's original either in a ciabatta, or a Vietnamese-style roll, depending on your proclivities, with roasted peppers, olives and Italian cheeses, your choice.
Where: 30 Pier Street, Altona, matteosdelicatessen.com.au
Best vegetarian option: Basil pesto, buffalo mozzarella (from That's Amore), eggplant, tomato and balsamic vinegar served fresh on Ned's ciabatta.
Best side: Freshly piped cannoli from Cannoleria by That's Amore.
They love: The meatball sub from the now-closed Rocco's Bologna Discoteca in Fitzroy.
Coming soon from Comma: Salmon pastrami bagels. Photo: Supplied
Tuckshop by Comma
You could almost say that sandwiches saved owner Adam Cruickshank. Racked with corporate burnout, he hit a major depressive rut and took a leap to open Prahran's bagel and coffee joint Crooked Letters in 2019. Serving good, simple food, he says, set him straight.
Two years on, he has opened Comma, a neighbourly wine-diner in Moorabbin with executive chef Matt Woodhouse, and they (along with Cruickshank's partner, Megan Kwee) have also taken the lease of 3 Tuck Street, where they will soon open Tuckshop by Comma.
In the recent lockdown, they showcased what's to come: Savion bagels, which they choose for their softer texture, which makes them more amenable to handling large fillings.
These include their house-cured Ora salmon pastrami (one of the better-choice salmon products, according to the Good Fish Project); sliced, grilled Cape Grim hanger steak with dill pickles, mayo, and smoked scamorza cheese; and simpler underdogs like the caper and dill cream cheese schmear.
Stay tuned for the opening in a month, Moorabbin. It might change your life, too.
Opening: 3 Tuck Street, Moorabbin, late June. Follow @tuckshop.by.comma on Instagram
Best vego option: The satay tofu bagel with crispy marinated tofu, house satay, grilled broccolini, house pickles and vegan aioli.
They also love: New York-style sandwiches from Applehead Deli.
Surprise game-changer: Anchovy's egg banh mi. Photo: Simon Schluter
Thank our sweet stars that Anchovy's chef-owner Thi Le has made the decision to offer up her banh mi full-time at a dedicated Bridge Road venue, Ca Com (a working title, named for anchovies used in fish sauce).
Last year, Le played around with Laotian cuisine, so her first rolls were actually khao jee pâté, but the offering has veered (mostly) back to her Vietnamese-Australian heritage. Demand saw rolls continue at the Richmond restaurant on Saturdays only. Renovations of the former massage parlour next door mean this opening is still months away, but take this advice when you go.
Every roll is testament to Le's fresh produce and prepped-to-order ethos. Maybe this week there will be pig's head terrine with pine mushrooms; or fresh house-made smoked-then-grilled sausages of pork, makrut lime, fish sauce, lemongrass and garlic.
But the dark horse, according to Le and backed up by edible research, is the egg banh mi. Eggs are fried at a high heat so they bubble into a voluminous omelette. Prepared fresh, and topped with a sweet, salty, chewy chilli oil and paired with all the typical fixings, it's the surprise game-changer.
Where: 336 Bridge Road, Richmond, anchovy.net.au
Best vego option: Egg banh mi
Best side: Pick up some of Anchovy's chilli oil.
They also love: Heidelberg's Superdays Coffee and Sandwiches, where pecorino is shredded onto the mushroom melt as it is toasted for maximum meld.
Jolly Good's chicken baguette. Photo: Supplied
Jolly Good Sandwiches
Could you imagine a career prospect better than working at Andrew McConnell's marble-ous, caviar and lobster-stacked Gimlet in the CBD? Chef Raphael Exton-Pery couldn't, until 2020 lockdowns made him consider a long-held dream of bringing what he saw as the thriving and overlooked sandwich culture of cities like Rome and New York to Melbourne, plus drinks.
After doing pop-ups late last year, he's taken a space on Brunswick Street where there will be less queueing for his chewy rolls with classic fillings like tarragon-forward mayo binding poached free-range chicken with the soft chomp of butter lettuce.
Or the roast beef, featuring soft, blush meat, American-style mustard, sweet bread and butter pickles and Swiss cheese gently grilled until it melds with the roll.
To meet full-time demand, Exton-Pery has switched from a friend's bread to Cobb Lane. The bonus is that you can also grab a glazed Cobb Lane cruller doughnut for dessert.
Where: 375 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, instagram.com/jollygood_sandwiches
Best vego option: Pickled, grated beetroot and carrot, alfalfa, strong English farmhouse cheddar, creamy mayonnaise and butter lettuce.
Best side: Cobb Lane German-style pretzel with house mustard and pickles.
They also love: All the stars of the northside belt: Hectors, Nico's, Falco, Kelso's.
Stan's well-ratioed eggplant parma sandwich. Photo: James Butler
If you think you'll struggle deciding between the ultimate breakfast muffin (a pork and fennel sausage patty swaddled in a sourdough muffin with a layer of curried egg frittata, and American cheese) and the eggplant parma that gets points for ratio of creamy eggplant to crisp crumb, you will.
And just wait until you get to the counter and find a tray of whole crackle-edged fried potatoes.
Stan's comes from a team with cred (the owners have connections to cafe Moby, cult booze-free wine brand NON, Leonardo's Pizza Palace, and Weekdays Design Studio). It shows in everything from the forest green and white tiles to the deli stash of hot sauces and NON wines. Don't panic, order everything.
Where: 248B Glenferrie Road, Malvern, stansdeli.com.au
Best vego option: Look for specials like Jerusalem artichoke, aged parmesan and horseradish mayo.
Best side: Fried potatoes.
They love: The falafel pita from Bambam Deli & Discoteca in Cheltenham is top-notch.
Pork belly and crackling roll from Scott Pickett's CBD cafe-grocer Le Shoppe. Photo: Alex Squadrito
Scott Pickett's sando shop out the front of his lavish city restaurant, Chancery Lane, opened mere weeks before the recent lockdown.
Given the struggles of the CBD, and the fact that former Quay chef Rob Kabboord is behind a deli menu, it's possibly a high priority to slide into a lavish booth for hot winter sandwiches including confit duck and a croque monsieur – both of which tip a hat to Chancery Lane's French leanings.
The deli section is also there for your (finer) grocery shopping, when you have run out of saucisson, anchovies and bottled martinis. Muah.
Where: 430 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, leshoppe.com.au
Best vego option: Grilled vegetable baguette – grilled eggplant, zucchini, peppers, basil, pesto, artichokes and fior di latte.
Best side: Our super green salad – everything green and delicious, with a burst of citrus from finger lime.
They also love: Saint Dreux. The fluffy white bread, the wagyu and the warmth is an unbelievable combination.