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.
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.
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.
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
Prices Brunch: $7.50-$16; Lunch: $11-$21; Shortcake: $9
Lakeside at Carousel
The Australian Open is on the big screen and there's all-day eating and drinking at this pop-up picnic spot, here 'til the end of February. Brunchy options include acai bowls and scrambled egg brioche rolls, but you can also settle in with mezze boxes, fish and chips and 'Park Life' salads.
22 Aughtie Drive, Albert Park, 03 8646 6008, lakesideatcarousel.com.au
Satt and Pratt Bhoir do a special Bombay brunch on Sundays featuring Indian filter coffee with chicory and an outstanding menu of snacks, including street-style parathas, pooris and paos. Kheema pao features spiced lamb mince, seasoned with chillies and butter, topped with poached eggs and served with soft rolls. Ka-pao!
378 Bridge Road, Richmond, 03 7012 3355, 3idiots.com.au
Union Street Brewers
A friendly welcome is expressed in everything from the cheery latte art to the smiley gingerbread. Along the way, there are lavishly loaded homemade bagels, eggs every which way and multi-culti bowls of sustaining lunch fare.
1/34 Union Street, Brunswick, 03 9191 9857