Blue Toba erupts onto dining scene

A small but tasty Indonesian restaurant — Blue Toba — opened Oct. 1 in the Ashland Shopping Center, featuring lots of local, organic ingredients and spices personally brought here from chef-owner Birong Hutabarat’s home in that land.
Indonesia may be near to Thailand and China, but this tastes nothing like their food, says Hutabarat, mainly because of long cooking time and spices such as turmeric, coconut, candlenut and lime leaf. These are found in most of their dishes and infuse their rice.
The crown jewel on the menu — and in Indonesia — is the hearty Rendang, a spicy (not hot spicy, but taste spicy) piece of grass-fed beef that’s stewed for hours in coconut milk, galangal (blue ginger), lemon grass and a secret mixture of Indonesian spices.
“You get this infusion from it. People comment on its after-effects,” said Leslie Caplan, Hutabarat's wife and business partner.
“It’s amazingly tasty,” said customer Trish Broersma, who has been to Indonesia. “It takes you there, the spices and rich flavors. There’s nothing like it in any Oriental food.”
Finishing her Ayam Pedis Manis, a grilled chicken with a sweet and spicy sauce, Crystal Jones observed, “It was excellent, the rice so aromatic and fluffy. It’s wonderful to have quality ethnic food like this in town, all organic and fresh. I can tell by the crunchiness of the broccoli — really yummy.”
The couple last year launched their restaurant on wheels, serving growers markets and wineries, but were severely limited by the cold of winter and the heat and smoke of summer, says Caplan, so they decided to make the jump to a permanent spot — the completely remodeled and modernized building once occupied by Happy Falafel, next to Printfast on Highway 66. (Correction: The name of the falafel restaurant has been corrected.)
“So far, so good,” said Hutabarat on the restaurant’s third day. In his native land, food is an experience of culture — and of ceremony, something he learned from the “mamas” of the villages where he grew up, in Utara province. 
Other items are Gulai, a spicy curry with cinnamon, clove, lemon grass and asam kandis, a dried fruit — and Opor, a mild candlenut curry with shallots, garlic and spice.
The name Toba comes from a lake and super-volcano near his home, which erupted 75,000 years ago, was the largest volcano on record and nearly made humanity extinct. 
The narrow restaurant seats 14 with a dozen seats outside. Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays, with a day to be added after the opening month.
Blue Toba is at 1690 Ashland St.; the phone number is 541-708-6214.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at

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