Published in Mizzima Weekly on 9 June 2015
Toba Restaurant and Café in Yangon’s trendy Yaw Min Gyi area is celebrating its first anniversary this month, which is no small feat considering how fickle and fraught the city’s bar and restaurant scene has become of late. Toba remains one of just two Indonesian restaurants in town and one of the very few 24 hour establishments – at least on weekends. Since June 1, its opening hours from Sunday to Thursday have been cut back to 7am until 1am, which is still by no means a short shift. Unfortunately, there still seems to be a few bumps in the road in terms of Toba’s service standards, but the food and value for money compensate well enough.
For those uninitiated with Indonesian cuisine (and I must confess I am no expert), Toba’s almost implausibly extensive menu includes helpful descriptions and a photo of every dish. Do note that whilst beer doesn’t appear on the menu, it’s available all the same (staff will collect it from the shop next door without any additional charge). There’s a bit of poetic licence going on in terms of describing many dishes as ‘Indonesian-Western style’ when they’re clearly anything but. The ‘chicken macaroni soup’ comes to mind – but I won’t go on because it’s a bit of a quibble.
The shortcomings of the nasi goreng were less easy to gloss over. As one of Indonesia’s national dishes, I was surprised to learn that the mutton variety (K3,400) was unavailable. So I opted for the sapi (beef) instead, which I took home as a parcel for my husband. My sampling of it later that day proved disappointing – it looked and tasted a lot more like a bland and greasy Chinese fried rice, without any kick whatsoever.
I started off my meal with the sop buntut, which is a “submerged oxtail in a traditional recipe soup, covered in pot and boiled with slow fire for three hours.” It came with a wedge of lime and a fiery green chilli paste and cost K4,100. It was a heartily flavoured soup and the delectably tender chunks of meat slid off the bone. The soup was accompanied by gado gado, which is a much loved mix of crunchy greens and peanut sauce and decorated with deep fried krupuk (a close equivalent of prawn crackers), which at Toba, sports neon trimmings.
Whilst Toba has an attractive upstairs seating area featuring traditional wooden seating and a laid back Balinese décor, the downstairs section is less inspiring. The walls are adorned with gaudy murals of volcanoes and other Indonesian landscapes and the seating is a little cramped and cafeteria-like, though there’s a booth at the back that’s more spacious and suitable for groups of up to a dozen.
The staff were friendly and attentive and the dishes appeared with impressive speed – nothing took longer than 15 minutes. However things went downhill when I went upstairs and stumbled upon a waiter relieving himself in Toba’s sole lavatory with the door wide open. After finishing off he simply waved me in with a grin, which I guess was preferable to a flurry of awkward apologies.
Prices are another of Toba’s strengths. They’re very reasonable, especially considering that the portions are generous. Three mains and a jasmine tea came to just K10,017 and this included a five percent government tax of K400. I assumed the 17 kyat would be written off so I was startled when the waitress asked me to cough up the exact amount. Whilst 20 kyat notes still exist as a denomination, I only encounter them once in a blue moon: in fact I keep one at home as a souvenir.
When I said I was befuddled as to how I could pay such an impractical sum, the waitress launched into an explanation about the government’s new tax schemes. Midway, she caught sight of the 50 kyat note peeking out of my wallet and asked me to give it to her. I was perturbed on principle and began to protest. At that moment, a waiter sprang up from behind and whacked a 50 kyat tax sticker onto my bill. When they understood that I remained unconvinced and opposed, the waitress agreed to give me a “discount” on my bill – a term she repeated with grating effect. It wasn’t until much later that I realised I’d been too flustered to ask for my anniversary promo discount of 10 percent and the free dessert the male waiter had promised me when I first sat down to dine.
TOBA Restaurant-Café is located on 15 Nawaday Street, Dagon Township
For more information, visit Toba’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/tobarestaurantcafe?fref=ts