Blue Toba owners dream big in new space
Marking a decade in business, Ashland’s Blue Toba has plush new digs downtown.
The eatery that started as a food truck occupied a tiny counter-service space in the Ashland Street shopping center, where it enjoyed a loyal following, for about eight years. Those humble surroundings were celebrated in a 2018 episode of Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” with celebrity restaurateur Guy Fieri.
But those accolades didn’t keep Blue Toba’s chef-owner Birong Hutabarat and wife Leslie Caplan from dreaming bigger. When the couple took over the former Sakana space across from Varsity Theatre, they not only exponentially increased their seating capacity but also gained a venue for serving drinks inspired by the flavors of Hutabarat’s native Indonesia.
The Indonesian melting pot is expressed in Hutabarat’s cooking as a “cultural culinary experience.” Learning to cook from the village “mamas” in North Sumatra, Hutabarat — more widely known as “Chef B” — christened his restaurant for Lake Toba in the island region.
Traditional Indonesian artworks and textiles compose the minimalist but striking decor in Blue Toba’s new location. Colorful cushions and tapestries contrast with modern tables and chairs, as well as the building’s original hardwood floors and brick walls.
While the expansion added a fairly extensive beverage menu of craft cocktails, “mock-oholic” drinks, beer and wine, the food menu remains a concise representation of Blue Toba’s tried-and true recipes. Two appetizers, five entrees and two sides dishes constitute the regular menu. But most evenings offer at least one special.
Although Chef B’s spice palette is broad, the cumulative effect is complex, rather than spicy. So I knew most choices would appeal to a friend whose tolerance for heat is on the lower end. Indeed, Blue Toba is known among most customers for dishes on the milder side.
In that spirit, I vouched for “opor” ($24), a Javanese curry with no chiles that achieves an earthy flavor and sensuous texture from candlenuts. The first time I’d dined at Blue Toba provided my introduction to this nut, related to macadamia with a high fat content that recommends it as a thickening agent. It’s the dish that earned Fieri’s raves nearly five years ago.
Our friend also wanted noodles, “mie goreng” ($20), which can be prepared either with chicken or tofu. We chose the latter and requested the “opor” with chicken. Adding to the meal’s protein, our friend declared the chicken satay with house-made peanut sauce ($13) a must.
I also craved the “nasi goreng,” essentially Indonesia’s version of fried rice, which I’ve prepared on several occasions at home. Chef B’s featured green beans, also the main ingredient in his “urap,” a meatless side dish. For the rice special, we again asked for chicken.
The only other protein choice — beef — can be had solely in Chef B’s “rendang,” a dish beloved of his longtime clientele. Slow-cooking for five hours in coconut milk yields a “dry curry,” meaning much of the sauce is absorbed in the tender, succulent meat.
Ramping up the rendang’s flavor profile are lemongrass, galangal and a wide variety of spices shipped direct from Chef B’s family in Indonesia. He also visits his homeland regularly to stock up on fresh, hand-picked ingredients. I asked for the nasi goreng’s preparation with a medium level of spice, the noodles — in deference to my friend — mild.
But first a cocktail for me and my partner. Citrus, coconut, tamarind and jackfruit play prominent roles on the cocktail list. Coconut milk combined with tequila and grapefruit liqueur appealed to my partner while the smoked tea gimlet with tamarind syrup, elderflower liqueur and black tea sounded just right to me. The drinks were $14 and $13, respectively.
Arriving in close concert with the drinks, the satay was smothered in peanut sauce, rather than the condiment reposing in a separate container for dipping. The sauce, generously portioned, made the dish, although the chicken was one of the tenderest, juiciest skewers I can recall tasting in a restaurant. Our friend oohed and ahhed over the appetizer, proclaiming it the best satay she’d ever had.
The main courses were portioned just right for sharing. But our request for spice levels seemed to have been confused in the kitchen. The noodle dish I hoped would be mild for our friend had a bit of burn while the nasi goreng I anticipated would be “medium spicy” contained hardly a hint of heat.
To sate my craving, I added drops of Chef B’s house-made sambal, Indonesia’s indispensable pepper paste, made with sun-dried chiles. The intense flavor revealed a deep, savory note under tongue-tingling heat. The first order, about a tablespoon, is complimentary; each additional portion costs $1.
Our friend said she could tell everything was conscientiously — even lovingly — prepared, the vegetables cooked until just tender, the grains of rice handled with utmost integrity. True to my previous experiences, the turmeric-lime leaf rice served with the opor was one of the most visually appealing and taste-tantalizing items, complementing the bright melange of carrots, broccoli and red bell peppers.
Chef B and Leslie say they hope to add lunch as they hit their stride. I would love to see a couple of additional protein options to broaden interest in the core menu. Blue Toba, at 145 E. Main St. is open 5-9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. See facebook.com/bluetoba or call 541-708-6214.
Reach features editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4494 or email@example.com