North Melbourne's Le Bajo Milkbar bakes fantastic fluffy bread in a garage

Jason Gunawan converted his car garage into Le Bajo Milkbar.
Jason Gunawan converted his car garage into Le Bajo Milkbar. Photo: Eddie Jim

THEME: FUN BRUNCHING

We know about pandemic projects: the puppy worship, sudden green thumbs, all that linen-cupboard alphabetising. But Jason Gunawan's lockdown was unique. The Indonesian restaurateur shifted his family from Jakarta to Melbourne, a second home of sorts where he spent much of his childhood and uni days. Two months of disruption, they thought.

Gunawan's 2020 was supposed to be busy with a new beachclub and glamping resort in Labuan Bajo, following on from his hugely successful Potato Head clubs in Jakarta, Bali, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Instead, he ate food from 279, a delightful rice-focused Japanese cafe around the corner, spent time in the huge garage where he keeps a collection of vintage Porsches and Mercedes, and pondered. Could he launch his island concept in Melbourne?

Le Bajo Milkbar is the off-beat result. It's in that garage and is a collaboration with 279's Kantaro Okada. The cafe melds Gunawan's nostalgia for Australiana and the fast-disappearing milk bar with Okada's Japanese food.

Chicken katsu sando.
Chicken katsu sando. Photo: Eddie Jim

Where 279 focuses on musubi (rice balls), Le Bajo obsesses over shokupan, the soft, fluffy milk bread that has cultish fans – and I count myself among them.

Ah shokupan! There are so many good ways to eat it. Sliced mega thick, toasted and drizzled with butter and honey. Cut thinner and sandwiched with panko-crumbed chicken and cabbage. Cut into cute three-point sandwiches stuffed with spiced, boiled egg.

And – my favourite – turned into a fruit sando with whipped cream and cut fruit, positioned with arty whimsy.

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Le Bajo bakes about 50 shokupan loaves a day – you can even buy an airy brick for home if they have enough.

Le Bajo may have been conceived as a beach club but North Melbourne garages don't feel excessively coastal. It is more of a kissaten, a type of Japanese coffee-and-toast neighbourhood meeting place.

The social aspect is to the fore: explicitly bike-, kid- and dog-friendly, Le Bajo is also fond of petrol heads, with classic car meets on Saturdays from 7.30am.

Three-point egg sandwiches.
Three-point egg sandwiches. Photo: Eddie Jim

It may not be beachy but the mood is as sunny as the shokupan is fluffy and it definitely counts as a lockdown victory.

Le Bajo Milkbar

Address 8-14 Howard Street, North Melbourne, 0402 189 088, instagram.com/lebajo_milkbar

Open Tues-Sun 7.30am-4pm

The fruit sando.
The fruit sando. Photo: Eddie Jim

Prices Brunch: $7.50-$16; Lunch: $11-$21; Shortcake: $9

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