Gluttony in Shillong

By far, the best gastronomic experience I had in Meghalaya was at Sankrita’s house in Mawsynram. It was local, authentic, delicious, generous and homely. But you don’t have to compare everything to the best. So here’s a few cafes and restaurants in Shillong that I tried over multiple trips –

Trattoria – Don’t go by the misleading high-brow Italian name. If all you want to do when you’re in Shillong is to have some authentic Khasi food in a no frills, inexpensive environment, then stop right here. This little place near the Police Bazaar circle is tiny and often full and unlike proper restaurants, has slim communal benches arranged in rows in lieu of tables. It is also run like a canteen so you might have to wait your turn before they take your order and serve you. But for people who don’t mind the barebones ambience, it’s excellent. For newbies to Khasi cuisine like myself, they have helpful pork/mutton/fish platters that have a little bit of every preparation served with Jadoh rice. Can’t recommend this place highly enough.

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The pork platter with Jadoh rice at Trattoria

Café Shillong – This trendy first floor café in Laitumkhrah may be done up as a cool hang-out spot where food is secondary but it’s quite fantastic for grabbing some meaty Khasi dishes. Their steaks are decent but their succulent pork ribs are to die for. I also tried the smoked pork bastenga which was a bit too pungent and salty for my taste. The coffee wasn’t as good as the last time I was here but they have a double shot cappuccino option which is significantly better than the ordinary one. It has live music on Sunday evenings for those who like to go for that sort of thing and generally has a pleasant, cheerful vibe.

Delhi Misthan Bhandar – Hot and sweaty aren’t two words you would ever use to describe anything in a town like Shillong but that’s exactly what Delhi Misthan Bhandar is. It’s always packed to the gills with people and as if the challenge of serving so many customers with a handful of waiters isn’t enough, they complicate things even further by having a strange booking system. So you go to the counter, pay for your chola bhatura, take your slip and go upstairs. Here, you wait for a waiter to show up in a crowded, unventilated sitting area and transfer your order slip to the kitchen. You see them flitting all over the place but no one ever stops by to take your order. You’re getting angry and so are some of the people around you and after half an hour of feeling like you’ve been baked in an oven, you shout at one of them asking when he’s going to get the order. He stares at you sternly and waves an open palm gesture and runs away. Then you go to the manager who asks you to go back to your seat and wait like the other people are doing. Soon you realise that people who came after you have been getting their orders. You are not the sort to kick up a fuss but you try to. The manager looks at your order and says quizzically, “Oh, sirf ek chola bhatura?” (Just one chola bhatura?) and makes a waiter go get it pronto.

The chola bhatura is pretty good and probably the best you’re going to get in all of Shillong.

Smoky Falls Tribe Coffee – This little café with two tiny tables in Police Bazar does the best coffee in Shillong by a fair margin. The coffee is sourced from local growers from different parts of Meghalaya and roasted and packaged by the family that runs the business. It promises to be pure coffee without any added chicory. The place was only open once during the time I was here but I highly recommend picking up a few packets because it’s homegrown, local and run less like a business and more like a passion.

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The Smoky Falls Tribe Coffee place

Swish Café – Another place that does great coffee is this hip little cafe in the Laitumkhrah Beat House. This is known to be among the oldest cafes to open in Shillong and is a charming and friendly place to have a cuppa. I had a whiskey flavoured coffee on the suggestion of the woman taking my order and it was splendid with just the right amount of tang and texture. The food is pretty good too with some filling breakfasts, pork ribs, burgers and pancakes on offer.

Dylan Café – This is a pretty cool place to hang out if that’s all you want to do. There’s a nicely done-up interior area and an open terrace to lounge about. Predictably, Dylan pictures, lyrics and quotes form a significant part of the decoration. The food is college canteen standard and I found the burger and the noodles pretty ordinary. The coffee here was the worst coffee I had in all of Shillong. But still, a good place to chill with friends if your expectations from food aren’t too high.

City Hut Dhaba – Possibly the best place to have North Indian food in Shillong. It’s a tourist favourite and you might have to wait for a table during weekends. The ambience is geared squarely towards big groups and families, so brave solo travellers who venture here might feel slightly out of place (like I did). But the tandoori food here is good and the waiters are friendly and helpful.

Cloud 9 Rooftop Lounge – On the top floor of the most prominent hotel in Police Bazaar, this is a fine place to go for an expensive drink when you’re in the mood. The whiskey sour I had here was as mean as it should be. The Pan-Asian menu leans overtly towards Thai cuisine and is pretty decent for what it is. If you don’t compare the food here to what you get in Chiang Mai or Bangkok, you’ll be fine. The main reason to come here is to unwind after a long day of seeing the sights and it does the job perfectly well.

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Around Shillong – Umiam lake and Shillong Peak

Anyone who’s been to the North-Eastern parts of India might have noticed one strange phenomenon, that the sun sets early and in a lot of places, as early as 4.30 pm. So while we were lazily finishing a leisurely meal at Café Shillong, still invigorated by previous night’s Steve Vai gig, we realised it was 3.30 and if we didn’t get out and do something immediately, the day might well and truly be over.

We hailed a taxi and went straight to the prettiest place around Shillong, the Umiam lake. This mass of hydropower water, about 20 kms from the city, is an unmistakable sight when you’re transiting from Shillong to Guwahati but it’s worth going there for its own sake. Since we were a bit late, we could only hit a couple of viewpoints. The first, on the way to the lake shore, is from an elevated platform that gives you a panoramic view of the entire landscape.

By far, the better view of the lake is from the viewing platform near the Orchid Lake Resort. The place charges a nominal fee to non-guests and what you get for the little money you spend is a marvelous, unobstructed view of the shimmering waters and the tree-laden hills around. There’s a water-sports corner where the more active tourists can take a ride in the still waters. In a way, we were fortunate to have started so late because we were just in time to see the sun down and for the orange-yellow sunset colours to deepen and dissipate in the clouds radiating over the hills.

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A few days later, we were making our way back from Mawsynram to Shillong and on the way, we did a detour off the highway to Shillong Peak. The turn-off to the peak begins about 10 kms before Shillong on the Cherrapunjee/Mawsynram road and if you have some time to spare, it might be worth the foray because at close to 2000 meters above sea-level, it is the highest point in all of Meghalaya.

The peak also houses an Indian Air Force Base and security is predictably tight. We had to furnish our IDs and one of us had to leave it at the gate in exchange for an entry permit before going inside. You aren’t allowed to get off or take any pictures on the way to the peak. But once you’re there, you can put your tourist hat on and whip out your camera because the tourist circus is well and truly in show.

There are two observation towers and one of them is equipped with a telescope if you want to take a closer look at the city. Shops selling trinkets, clothes and snacks are clustered together for the benefit of those who might want to do some shopping. There are booths where you can put on Khasi costumes for 50 Rs. and get your pictures taken.

We chose to go to the tower without the telescope because there was nobody there. The bird’s eye view of the city from here through the tall pines was both magnificent and somewhat distressing. You could see the extent of ugly urban agglomeration eating into the forested hills around. Nevertheless, like all sweeping landscapes, it was a pretty impressive peek at the city.

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Shillong – Intro, Getting There, Cafe Shillong

Until the end of October, 2017 was a lean travel year by the standards of every other year I’ve had post-2009. Aside from a month in Tamil Nadu, a couple of weeks in Gujarat, a trip to Kolkata for my brother’s wedding, most of it was spent consolidating and editing the ton of pictures I had taken over 8 years, painstakingly organizing all my travel notes and replenishing my ever diminishing bank balance by saving up. I also had to deal with travel fatigue, saturation and burn out and my middle-aged body (I’m in my mid-30s) ached for rest after years of bumpy rides, bad food and poor sleep.

So the only reasons I went to Shillong was because NH7 was happening, Steve Vai was playing, some of my closest friends were going and it would be a short trip that I was hoping to finish in a couple of weeks to resume a monotonous routine in Mumbai. One of my favourite guitar players Uli Jon Roth was scheduled to play in Mumbai in mid-November and I was planning to make it back to the city by then. I certainly did not believe that I had another rough, months-long, largely off-beat exploratory journey left in me for the time being.

But as it turned out, Uli cancelled his tour and I am yet to return to Mumbai as I write this. The 3 hour flight to Guwahati turned into a couple of weeks in the Khasi Hills, a month in Mizoram, a month in Tripura, a couple of weeks in Assam, another month in West Bengal, then Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. So I thought I should recount this journey while it’s still fresh in my memory along with my posts about my travels from other years.

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The flight to Guwahati might have been painless but getting to Shillong from the airport was a puzzle we had to solve at the airport. A had booked an Ola cab before we left Mumbai to do the transit to Shillong but when we reached the airport, the driver refused to pick us up and canceled our booking. We had arrived at 8.30 p.m., perhaps not too late for a city like Mumbai but the counters for the cabs to Shillong at the airport had shut down. There were a few cab drivers waiting outside, all approaching us with varying levels of disinterest until one gentleman agreed to ferry us to the city for 800 Rs.

I’m continually amazed at how disorienting it feels when you go from Mumbai to any other city in India. While Mumbai would have been bustling at 9.30 p.m., making you curse the traffic snarls you might have to negotiate even at late-night hours on a holiday, Guwahati looked absolutely deserted. The drive from the airport to the city was a breeze through empty roads and haunted streets. Once we reached Guwahati, our driver’s eagle eye caught a Shillong registered vehicle and in a couple of hours, after a quick meal and a swift ride through the foggy hills, we were in Shillong.

We had booked our hotel in Shillong over a month in advance and it’s a good thing we did because the NH7 clientele appeared to have booked out all accommodation in the city and its tentacled suburbs. The hotel we chose was The Best Holiday Inn which, if you have a budget of over 2.5k INR, I highly recommend. It’s in the quietest of lanes in the Lachumiere area of Upper Shillong and was run with pinpoint efficiency. The room, where R, S and myself were staying was on a higher floor with a good view of All Saints Church and Lower Shillong and was quite spacious even for the 3 of us.

The next morning, we began our Shillong explorations with a gentle amble 2 kilometers down to one of Shillong’s photogenically kitschy park, Ward’s lake. I had been to Ward’s Lake on my first trip to Shillong in 2010 and I’m pleased to report that nothing has changed. It’s fairly clean and well landscaped and is a peaceful place to amble about for an hour or two. Hell, if you can find a seat on one of the benches in the shade, you can plonk yourself here for hours reading a book.

But we didn’t have such luxury of time because there was shopping to do, food to eat and a gig to attend. The Police Bazar area is the prime shopping street in Shillong but R had a hard time finding a decent windcheater for himself. It was a bit weird because if there was one place you would imagine would have good windcheaters for sale, it should have been the capital of the wettest region in the world. After much enquiry and investigation, he found a decent piece at an amiable store run by a man from Mumbai.

Ever since I mentioned the fact that Café Shillong, one of Shillong’s best cafes, did great coffee and awesome steaks, S’s paranoia had kicked in. He had been agonizing over the idea that if it was indeed as good as I claimed it was, there would be a veritable stampede of starving people who would be queuing up outside its doors from the wee hours of the morning to finish off all the food they had in a matter of minutes. So ingrained was this fear in his head that as we were making our way to the café, he laboured at length to convince us not to go because he was certain the food must have run out by the time we got there.

To put it mildly, his fears were overstated. It was entirely empty of people and we had a free choice of tables to occupy. S ordered their signature Pork Spare Ribs, which judging by his orgasmic expressions, must have been quite delicious. I ordered the Smoked pork bastenga, a sour khasi curry with bamboo shoots served with rice, which was a bit too tangy for my taste but had enough texture to make me not regret the choice. I did wish I had ordered a serving of S’s PSR after taking a bite though. R, being vegetarian, made do with a vegetarian burger which he assured us was fantastic. A joined us a little later and ordered a sandwich which also appeared to be fairly satisfactory. The cappuccino (light on the coffee heavy on the milk) was strictly okay and looked like it needed another espresso shot to make it taste more like coffee. Caveats aside, if you’re in Shillong and aren’t on a shoestring budget, this little café in Laitumkhrah is likely to serve you well.

This gastronomic excursion meant we were late to catch the shuttle bus to the venue. I was wondering whether to skip day 1 altogether because very few of the bands lined up played the sort of music I like listening to. But since we had already paid for the tickets, we made a rush to the central bus stand where the shuttle buses operated from. An NH7 shuttle bus rolled past as we hurried into the bus stand desperately hoping we hadn’t missed the last bus out.

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