For most visitors, the only thing overtly Australian about the Milk Bar is an accent occasionally emanating from its kitchen. That belongs to Inta Phayer, the Australian who runs this Uptown sandwich shop with her husband Kevin, a native of England.
At their tiny, charmingly off-kilter place, they make enormous and generally excellent sandwiches that don't seem to hail from anywhere in particular, except perhaps a fertile imagination. How else to explain a po-boy of roasted lamb slathered with Thai chili, dabbed with sour cream and held together with melted mozzarella — joined in the take-out bag by a curious little lollipop?
But to an Australian, a lunch like that bears several hallmarks of home. The lamb, sliced thin in the manner of deli meat, follows a tradition Aussies call "Sunday roast," a custom as ingrained as Monday red beans here. Thai chili — a chunky, candy-apple-red, sweet-and-spicy spread — is the condiment of choice for gastropub grub Down Under. And that lollipop? The brand, Chupa Chups, hails from Spain but is Australia's de facto national sucker.
Those touches may hit nostalgic notes for Aussies, but for the rest of us the Milk Bar offers an original and idiosyncratic approach to a quick lunch or early dinner (it closes at 8 p.m.). The seasonal soups are reliably good, as are the busy salads, the best of which is topped with Indonesian-style chicken satay. Cappuccino milk shakes and slushy lemon-lime drinks can take the edge off a hot day.
Sandwiches are the Milk Bar's calling card, and as with any serious sandwich it all starts with the bread. Po-boys are assembled on short, soft-crumbed pistolettes, and sandwiches are made on over-sized round loaves of ciabatta, a standing custom order from La Boulangerie. One called the "wolf me down" has roasted lamb, hummus and spinach. Eggplant and the better part of a Greek salad go into the "I dream of aubergenie."
There must be some ardent fans of the "speared pig," though I couldn't get over the texture of asparagus mixed with ham and hollandaise. But I concur with the name of a relatively recent addition called "shrimply the best." Pull its halves apart and a stretchy curtain of mozzarella reveals a seafood-platter's-worth of sauteed shrimp dressed with pesto and lemony mayonnaise.
The ciabatta contains it all as snugly as a calzone, and like a good calzone these sandwiches resurrect well in the toaster for second helpings. Many are big enough for two meals.
In Australia, a milk bar is a neighborhood institution somewhere between a snack bar and an old-fashioned soda fountain, and during the lunch rush it's clear this Milk Bar fills that role for kids from nearby schools and the scrubs-clad staff from neighboring Touro Infirmary. The location isn't easy to spot, but when you see people twirling lollipop sticks on their way back from lunch you know you're getting close.