On the border with Bhutan, a little over two hours from Guwahati, is a pretty little Bhutanese border town, nestled in the foothills, that plays host to tourists from India. But unlike a tourist town, Samdrup does not try to dress itself up for visitors. Instead, it continues to be itself and authentic. So here, there will be no little shops selling curios and touristy tinsel. Instead, there will be a very serious vegetable market and tiny grocery stores that stock items from India. The most important dining establishment in this small town is a place termed rather appropriately as ‘Friends’, a small dining hall in a building that houses shops at the lower level. A climb up a short flight of steps leads you to this restaurant that is bedecked with multi-coloured Diwali lights. On entering, one is immediately witness to Bhutanese equality. One table has labourers sitting on it, while another a young group of Bhutanese teens, educated and hip, taking selfies in silence. It may be the lack of options in this small town that attracts both kinds of clientele, but it is also the pricing that is modest. Intriguingly, the Gayatri mantra is playing on loop on the sound system in the restaurant and there is an open bar at one end. A strange combination if there was one, but no one seems to notice or comment. The dining area is flanked by a row of windows on one end of the wall that overlook the street below. A young policewoman stands across the road and keeps a watchful eye. The ‘no smoking’ signs all over the city and in this restaurant suggest that whilst alcohol is no taboo—there are liquor shops aplenty and locally-brewed strong beer—tobacco is a big NO. The menu at this restaurant has three sections: Indian, Bhutanese and Chinese. The Bhutanese offerings boast familiars like Thungpa, while the Indian section has rice and lentils. Chinese has ‘Chindian’, chilli chicken and spring rolls. The food at Friends is indifferent. What is, however, unique is the simplest dish on the menu—masala peanut. With green chillies and a tarty twist, it is the perfect starter and a signature. As is the nacho-style presentation of the papad, dressed up with tangy bits of tomatoes tossed in a secret sauce. It is wholly appropriate that the simplest items in this no-fuss restaurant and town are the most memorable.
In Guwahati, The Residency-Tourist Lodge is a gem of a boutique hotel that is tucked away on a hill opposite the State Assembly. This quaint hotel is an oasis of urban chic in a town that is over-run with budget hotels and generic hotel brands like Radisson and Taj Vivanta, which offer the typical hospitality experience. The Residency is a breath of fresh air. It has a small bakery called ‘Sugar Butterfly’, which has its own café-style outdoor sit-out. It’s a very English experience, with tea, cupcakes and seating courtesy lattice-work white iron furniture. The desserts are well priced at about `180 and quite simply to die for. The red velvet cake with a cheesecake frosting is the most delectably melt-in-your-mouth version of this trendy cake I have ever eaten. Then there is the double-loaded ganache and Baileys—chocolate pastry that has you licking your spoon clean. The owners of this delightful getaway have lived in the US for many years and seem to have brought the cupcakes with them from there!
Sugar Butterfly cupcakes are as good as the ones you may find at the famed Magnolia in New York City, and this is no small compliment. One may be stuck on the antiseptic charm and predictability of chain hotels, but I would highly recommend at least one visit to Sugar Butterfly when you are in Guwahati next. You won’t regret it and are likely to check in again on your next visit—for the cakes and not the gym!
Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad