You won’t get a single scoop of real ice-cream here — sorry, no electricity, no cold chain.
You won’t get a single scoop of real ice-cream here — sorry, no electricity, no cold chain.But Leh brings a lot more to the table, if you know where to look. I suggest you look under the table. For what’s on the streets and in the guidebooks is mostly pedestrian. Restaurants and cafés that look and smell the same. Cloned menus. Mediocre food. Dated music. Tired linen. Together they’re like a travelling circus — summers in Leh/Manali, winters in Goa/Varkala — serving a combination of ‘Conti’ breakfasts, North Indian curries, variable pizzas, pazztas, Chinese, Israeli, Kashmiri, Thai, Tex-Mex, Korean and Tibetan staples of momo thukpa noodles. Often, the only thing that recommends a place is the view. And even in that they cover common ground — Leh Palace to the right, Leh Palace to the left and, look, Leh Palace over your head.
Naturally, first impressions are deflating. But guided by resident food-sleuths (and veterans of food poisoning), we gleaned the grain from the chaff this season. Scouring the knees and elbows of the Main Bazaar, Fort Road and backpacking central Changspa Road until — in good time — Leh surprised us with fine dining marvels tucked into blind lanes and Buddhist chapel-cafés fronted by towering stone Maitreyas.
With no meats on the menu except chicken and, occasionally, mutton, and at least three ‘dry days’ in a month — no alcohol, no meat on full moon, new moon and half moon days — Leh is mulish about food practices fed by religion. So much so, that even fishing for Himalayan trout up river is frowned upon by most. And yet, in a place once dependent on barley and apricots all year round, tourism has, perforce, brought in fresh ingredients from Srinagar and cans of tuna and frozen seafood from faraway Delhi. On the flip side, it has also inspired a couple of resolute restaurateurs and co-ops intent on reviving local produce to go digging in their own backyards. Tsampa (roasted barley flour) now gets a glamorous apricot or Leh berry (seabuckthorn) juice treatment. And wild chives and rocket — no, those weeds in the barley fields were not weeds — grace the high tables in town.
So, pull up a chair, find a sunny spot and tuck into Leh before the food grows cold and the shutters restless, come September.
Dzomsa is all heart. The keeper of Leh’s conscience. I heard of it first in the context of refilling water bottles (Rs 7 for a refill) and recycling waste. Discovering much later, that this was no grey and grim parlour for a co-op, but a charming shop on Fort Road with plenty of tsampa and sunshine on tap. (The branches in the Main Bazaar and Changspa don’t serve breakfasts.) A quiet vantage point to watch the road below rouse itself on summer mornings, Dzomsa or meeting point has a short Ladakhi breakfast menu: khambir (leavened bread) with homemade khakla (butter) and fresh apricot preserve (Rs 15), jo labuk or tang tur, a sort of raita with veggies (Rs 40), smoky tsampa with apricot or Leh berry juice (Rs 35) and gur gur cha or butter tea (free). Lining the walls are rows of dried apricots, apples and carrots, vegetables pickled in mustard oil, tsampa, jaggery, laundry soap, salt, tea and prayer flags. Inspect the shelves well if you’re looking for gifts, and then go peer over Jigmet’s shoulder to watch her prepare your breakfast. She won’t mind, I checked.
Garden restaurants are a dime a dozen here (I reckon any restaurant that doesn’t have a view of the Leh Palace has a garden). But this jolly place down the road from Hotel Yak Tail and Penguin Restaurant (keep walking until you get to Alpine Villa) is a different kind of ‘garden’ restaurant. With a paved patio that overlooks a reassuring patch of organic greens — we spotted cabbage, carrot, spinach and tomato leaves, and a frisky dog that upset the cows in the shed — Open Hand (9871909777, openhand.in) doesn’t need garden umbrellas to look the part. Grab a bench outdoors before the regulars arrive. But don’t despair if you can’t. There are some delightful snug corners inside — full of bright, cheerful art and displays of scarves, bangles and beads—to burrow into a book or nibble on a piece of chocolate cake (Rs 70). Try their pancakes filled generously with chocolate, banana, apricot cream or apple crumble (Rs 40) or any of their breakfast selections, from yoghurt muesli to toast, sausages and eggs (Rs 125–210).
Between seven and eight in the morning, buying a roti at any of the soot-stained holes-in-the-wall in the lane behind the Jama Masjid is like climbing the Stok Kangri. Patrons, mostly Doda labourers who work the fields and await their turn to be picked up near the masjid every day, wall the shopfronts for a stack of rotis or biscuit-like kulchas (with shortening) fresh out of the tandoor. An hour later, housewives and school kids come by for their own newspaper parcels, even as the old radio belting out foot-tapping chakri is cranked up and the hukkah is lit. Mohsin Mohammed from Kargil spreads out the dough on a square piece of marble, making a pattern of indents with his wet fingers before plunging his arm into a glowing oven. Seconds later, I break bread (Rs 4) — warm, crisp on the outside and yeasty, melty, soft-as-a-quilt inside.
If you take comfort in numbers, the ratio of tourists to locals at Budshah Inn (8803730732), near the post office in the Main Bazaar, would be encouraging. For every European or North Indian customer, there are at least two locals here — Ladakhi householders, army men posted in Leh and, crucially, Kashmiri tradesmen. And no matter what the ten-page-long, chutney-stained menu suggests, they’re all here for the same thing: a proper Kashmiri meal. A comforting bowl of gushtaba (Rs 230) with a light, tart yoghurt gravy and meat that’s not inordinately gamey; a perfectly acceptable, if a tad too tomato-ey, rogan josh (Rs 230); and Kashmiri naan (Rs 50) stuffed with almost equal measures of dry fruits and paneer (the latter, I suspect, is not particularly traditional, but it worked). They didn’t have tabak maaz or kaanti the day we visited, and the seekh kebab was passable, but that’s not much to quibble about.
Café Jeevan – The Booklover’s Retreat
Some places are plain charming. And the vibe at Café Jeevan (9419129157) — particularly on the terrace — is such that you sink just a little bit deeper into the cane chair before turning your gaze to the Shanti Stupa glimmering in the midday sun. When you feel like stretching your legs a little, walk to the end of the terrace to browse in the booklover’s retreat — an alcove stacked with popular fiction and a bunch of eclectic titles left behind by travellers. Towards the tail of the Changspa Road, this Sikh-run establishment steers clear of all meats (eggs are okay) and covers the usual spectrum of Indian, Italian, Israeli, Continental and Chinese. But it usually does it well — clean flavours, well presented. Try the pizzas (Rs 145–180) and the mango pulp with cream (Rs 90), and avoid the crème caramel or chocolate (Rs 85).
Not on my original to-do list, I wish I could say I stumbled upon Lala’s Café on an evening walk in the old city. But for a friend who’s a regular here (it’s his ivory tower in the summer) I would have missed it entirely. And what a miss it would have been. Fronted by a nine-foot Maitreya in local granite — found nearby in the yard of a Tak family and restored by German conservator Patrick Jürgens in 2008 — Lala’s on the first floor resembles a traditional Ladakhi home with a narrow stairwell and low seating. A trap door leads you to the next level: a small terrace with three-legged stools, low benches, dog-eared books and the Leh Palace rising like a canyon behind it. Surrounded by crumbling mud-brick homes (along the row of cloth-dyeing shops), all you need for company here is gur gur cha (Rs 60 for the full wooden churner experience/Rs 15 for a cup). You can also order any of their other teas, mint or lemon-honey-ginger (Rs 15–25), juices (Rs 30–60), hot or cold chocolate (Rs 15–35), khambir with butter, jam, eggs, veggies or curd (Rs 40–60), jepschul or phemar, variations of tsampa mixed with cheese and butter (Rs 30) or quiches (Rs 60) and pastas (Rs 120–150). Lala, originally from Lhasa, now lives in the Netherlands. But you can still pay a visit to the five stone images of the Buddha in a windowless room on the ground floor glowing with butter lamps and faith.
World Garden Café
At the mouth of the Changspa Road, this corner café (9906990198) with trees, garden umbrellas and chequered linen is as good (or uneven) as any other in town. But sweet jesus, do they get your attention with desserts that say hello to the queen or roll out Martian ‘chapattis’. A fried dumpling with chocolate and dry fruits in its belly, Sweet Jesus (Rs 100) marries the two major food groups that really matter—chocolate and deep-fried. Hello to the Queen (Rs 100), a biscuit-banana-chocolate-fudge mix, is nursery food by design. But it’s the Mars Chapatti (Rs 120) — no relation to the deep-fried Scottish Mars bars — that is the real chocolate huckster. Order this large half-moon pastry (gujiya/calzone-like) taut with Nutella, banana, coconut, dry fruits and bars of Mars, only if you have your dentist on speed dial.
A cross between a café in the university and an outsize Ladakhi living room, Desert Rain (01982-256426) has hangout written all over it. So after you divest yourself of footwear and make yourself comfortable on the Ladakhi rugs, take your time to pick from one of the fifty odd teas, coffees, shakes and juices on the blackboard (Rs 20–50). Then linger some more over the cakes and bakes menu for the day only to be waylaid by the bookshelves, the evening buzz in the Main Bazaar below or the bold yellow, red and purple on the walls. When you do get hungry, help yourself to some clubby sandwiches (Rs 50) or that gooey bowl of cheese, veg or tuna Maggi (Rs 20–50).
This is as fine as dining gets in Leh. And before you think that’s a backhanded compliment, let me hasten to add that were we to transplant this sprawling wood and glass dining room with an equally generous patio for candlelit dinners to Delhi or Mumbai, with or without the barley fields and the craggy edges of the mountains in the distance, several high priests of haute cuisine would run for cover. But one has to find it first. Unlike its namesake, which peddles “Today’s Special dosas and idlis” on Fort Road, the Bon Appetit (251533) you want to get to is not under your nose. In Changspa, find the Moravian Mission School, cross the road and walk down the alley next to the shabby Korean restaurant of Amego (look for a sign here) and keep walking till you come upon a kind of miniature barn door on the right. Beyond it is a garden path that doesn’t prepare you for what you’re about to see. Turn right and there it is: a warm glowing apparition — like a butter lamp in a well of darkness. When you get over the initial shock — and it might take a while — order a lovely tomato and locally grown rucola or rocket salad (Rs 200) and the trio of dips — baba ghanoush, hummus and a yoghurt dip with wild chives and its flowers — served with naans stuffed with olives and sundried tomatoes (Rs 180). Wash it down with a glass of jungle tea (Rs 160) steeped with cinnamon, cardamom, rum and honey before your main course of penne with lemon butter and tuna (Rs 220), Asian stir-fry (Rs 210/260) or honey mustard chicken (Rs 280) arrives. Whatever you choose, save space for dessert. The chocolate momos (Rs 180) here are a revelation.
The catch-all menu aside, Chopsticks (9622224727) shares little with the other touristy feeding troughs in town. Set apart by its Asian-style décor with wooden benches and red folding fans, it has in the last few years managed to seal its reputation as the place for ‘dependable’ Chinese and Thai food. So much so that on any given evening finding a spot on the terrace — a trellised lounge — can be impossible, unless you get here before seven. Easily spotted — now in its new location at the Raku Complex on Fort Road — Chopsticks regulars recommend the chilli garlic noodles (Rs 110–140), the veg, chicken or mutton stir-fry (Rs 110–140) and the Thai green curry (Rs 140–180).
The Tibetan Kitchen
The Tibetan Kitchen (9697811510) is a restaurant in the same way that Taj Mahal is a monument. For no one — from Padma Lakshmi to Amitabh Bachchan and everyone in between — leaves Leh without a meal here. We planned ours a day in advance and pre-ordered a Tibetan hot pot or gyakko (Rs 2,200). We also did what anyone who orders a gyakko ought to do: rounded up three or four friends. Almost as attention-seeking as a hissing sizzler, this traditional brass steamboat arrives at the table with much fanfare and sides of rice, tingmos (steamed buns) and salad. Simmering in an earthy, garlicky broth, which is constantly topped up from a flask, is a colourful wreath of vegetables (not undercooked or overcooked; each one tasting like it should) and meats, including a few curious little parcels made of aubergine and keema. It’s a meal for celebrations — whether you’ve climbed a mountain or ended a glorious vacation in Leh. We ended ours here. And it was a last supper to remember.
- Penguin Garden Restaurant Friendly service, buttery croissants, avocado lassis and regenerative thukpas — there’s a reason Penguin is popular. They also remind you to wear a hat — in September, apricots are on the house here. Rs 400 for two; off Fort Road; 9622271777
- Il Forno A guidebook staple, this rooftop restaurant with a view of the Leh Palace suffers from overuse. But the pizzas are excellent (try the Al Funghi). Rs 400 for two; Main Bazaar near the SBI ATM; 9419861116
- Summer Harvest Another old favourite that battles it out with Dreamland next door, evenings here are raucous. Try the Tibetan or Indian dishes and thank the Ladakhi matron who runs this tight ship. Rs 500 for two; Fort Road; 9906986556
- Pumpernickel This local institution has been turning out apple pies, cinnamon rolls and coffee cakes for longer than they care to remember. Their yak cheese sandwiches come well recommended. Rs 300 for two; Sabzi Mandi Road; 962228521
- My Secret Recipe The upstart that dares to bake cakes across from Pumpernickel. With comics on the walls and jam bottles filled with wildflowers, it’s a lot less rusty and the cakes just as good. Rs 300 for two; Sabzi Mandi Road; 9622137783
- Gravi T Started by mountaineering experts, this tiny, quirky café’s main draw is its artificial climbing wall. Pasang, the young chef, plies patrons with pastas, tempuras, rolls and sandwiches. Rs 500 for two; Raku Complex, Fort Road; 9858704704
- Amdo Food Grungier than Amdo Café across the road, this is where locals come for their fix of spinach and cheese momos. Rs 300 for two; Main Bazaar, down the road from the Masjid
- Gesmo In its last season, before the charming old, single-storey building is pulled down and rebuilt again, Gesmo follows the usual Israeli to Indian pattern. But the Continental food is reliable. Rs 400 for two; Fort Road; 253153
- Tenzin Dickey Tibetan Restaurant
- A sort of Buddhist activist hub, with Free Tibet posters and the Dalai Lama on the walls, the food is strictly vegetarian. But no meat-eating primate has emerged unmoved by Tenzin’s cheese and potato fried momos. Rs 200 for two; Fort Road; 9906990704