I sit, somewhat sombre, in an office space as utilitarian as any. The crispness of winter is in the air, but as cities are, there's no warmth of the figurative kind. Things were different along the deodar-fringed slopes of Landour, the quaint Christmassy town atop Mussoorie, which I visited in December. The place would have felt plain were it not for its quirky, well-known inhabitants—be it celebrated author Ruskin Bond or famed Bollywood film director Vishal Bhardwaj—or its British cantonment identity, American missionary history and the recent crop of restaurants inspired by Landour's past.
A food trail in Landour, though, became possible only recently. A cuppa could be savoured at Char Dukan even in the 1960s, but the prospect of continental fare at Emily's is relatively fresh. Then there was no Little Llama Cafe, Landour Bakehouse or Clock Tower Café.
My affiliation with Landour is as recent as last decade, when a younger me could be found enjoying horseback riding at Mussoorie's Mall Road during family visits every summer. But we never really paid heed to Landour. I properly discovered it in my readings of Ruskin Bond, after which I was heartbroken to have missed out on this poetic town. So this time, I was back to savour not just its sights and sounds, but also its gingery, oven-baked scents.
I began my trail from Landour's farthest end -- Sisters Bazaar, which houses the Landour Bakehouse. The place not only pays homage to old Victorian-era bakeries, but also harks back to a time when small bakers dotted the walkways of Landour, drawing residents out from their cottages only to have them retreat with handfuls of rusk. Though the charming Bakehouse is only two years old, its interiors are reminiscent of an old hill cabin. It is owned by the Mumbai-based Mars Hospitality Group, run by the brother-sister duo, Sanjay and Rachna Narang, who have imbued the otherwise sleepy Landour with some character.
I liked plenty of things here -- the exposed brick walls, an old tiffin box, a little book cabinet and, especially, the spirit of the Landour Cookbook that comes alive here -- in the past, eclectic town dwellers would exchange recipes, made suitable to local conditions. These were simple, homey dishes, compiled into the Landour Cookbook, which the Bakehouse embodies in its menu.
From the chef's specials, I had the mulmuly kebab (cheese, chop masala and mulmuly chicken), as soft as an infant's cheeks. Among the sweets, there came peanut butter blondies (vanilla extract and crunchy peanut butter), dense chocolate brownie (chocolate and chocolate chips) and, finally, the aptly named melting moments (a very tender vanilla-based cookie).
My next stop was A. Prakash & Co. next door, famed for its jams, cheeses and peanut butter. It is the late Inder Prakash's legacy, and his son Anil Prakash's dedicated continuance of the same. Apart from Landour regulars, Bond (for marmite), and Jawaharlal Nehru and his descendants (for blackberry jam) have been his customers, and their visits certainly spiced things up. As did Anil, when he handed me a Monaco biscuit spread with some sweet mango chutney. The piquant chutney went beautifully with the savoury biscuit. Then, he cut a thin slice from a gouda cheese wheel and placed it on the biscuit to improvise a 'cheese-on-cracker'. As for his strawberry jam, I found it much fresher than a Kissan or a Cremica. And, finally, his crunchy peanut butter was pure peanut goodness, not even one bit artificially sweetened.
Anil's store was established in the 1920s by his grandfather. But when his father Inder Prakash took charge in the late 1940s, the British had just left India, and foreign provisions were in short supply. Inder decided to take matters in his own hands. First, he learnt cheese-making from an American who stayed in Allahabad. And then, to make peanut butter, he acquired recipes and equipment from the Seventh Day Adventist Mission after they folded up. And for jams, the American missionaries of Landour shared their recipes with him. By the 1980s, Anil too had joined the store, and since then he has expanded the business, added unique products, automated the equipment, and even ensured corporate tie-ups.
For lunch, I moved on to Clock Tower Café. It was built in a similar architectural style as the iconic British-built Landour Clock Tower or ghantaghar, which was demolished just a few years ago. Though a new clock tower is coming up, as of now it is only in the café that we find any soul of the original. Located on the crowded Landour Bazaar Road, the café's red-brick faccedilade gives way to what seems like a traditional pizzeria right out of Napoli, though it serves both Italian and Chinese. There are many arched alcoves with seating areas, which borrow directly from the ghantaghar.
Here, an important aspect of Landour is revealed -- how the 163-year-old iconic Woodstock School inspires the menu of many of the town's eateries. Initially set up for the children of American missionaries, the school now attracts students from all over. And children relish pizzas and shakes. That's exactly what Sanjay Narang, a Woodstock alumnus, thought when he set up Clock Tower in its vibrant, youth-friendly decor, complete with posters and signs making pop-culture references, an open kitchen and kitschy ceiling-hung lights.
The four-season pizza arrived first, each slice with a different kind of chicken topping -- tikka (in its yellow tinge), malai (white), reshmi (orange) and pahadi (green). This melange of colours proved to be a flavour fest too. The gourmet lamb burger (with bacon, cheese, egg, tomato and lettuce) that came next was a chef's special and very wholesome. From the Chinese spread, the honey soya glazed chicken momo with noodles sizzler proved to be a good gamble.
I was stuffed, but as Puneet, the photographer accompanying me, said, "lt's not that you're going to stop anyway." I didn't dispute that, and 15 minutes later, I was at Char Dukan.
Shortly after Landour's St Paul's Church was consecrated in 1840, there came up a market of four shops -- Char Dukan -- in the area adjoining it to cater to the household needs of foreigners enrolled at the Landour Language School, where they learned Hindi and other regional languages. Today, there are about five or six shops, all of them serving food. But it was Anil's Café and Tip Top Tea Shop that first began to serve hill-friendly snacks and beverages here more than 50 years ago. You can even read about them in the writings of Bond, who's quite enjoyed Char Dukan's bun omelette.
Anil Aggarwal, the owner of Ani's Café who's cooked here since 1974, was using one hand to stir Maggi and the other to fix an omelette in the late afternoon sun when I interrupted him to ask him his story. He obliged, but without breaking routine. Though the place is frequented mostly by tourists, students have always been faithful visitors. In fact, it was a student who taught Anil how to make waffles, pancakes and pizzas. He&rsquos slightly annoyed at the recent tourist rush, but remains a passionate cook.
Vipin Prakash of Tip Top, on the other hand, reminisced about the days when many more people were enrolled at the Language School and would visit his shop. He also recounted how the late Indian actor Tom Alter, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and the cast of the Ajay Devgn-starrer Shivaay have visited his teashop.
At both places, the ginger lemon honey tea stood out, citrusy, sweet and warm. While Anil recommended his pancakes, Vipul swore by his waffles, so I knew what to opt for and where. Anil added little pieces of Cadbury's Dairy Milk to the chocolate pancake, while Vipul mixed banana in the batter of my chocolate and banana waffle. I took one of Anil's specialties -- butter-fried Maggi -- while at Tip Top, a vegetable Maggi gave me the warmth I needed. Both their bun omelettes were equally good, so, in this battle, the only winner was Char Dukan.
Fifteen minutes to sunset, I crossed the road to Café Ivy and stood at its balcony. As the sun descended behind the hills, the edges of the hillscape were encased first in gold, then orange, red, pink and, finally, purple, all within minutes. These were Landour's winter lines. Someone had told me this waltzing display is only found in Mussoorie and a certain place in Switzerland.
Once the light show was over, Café Ivy came into prominence. Though modern, it has been done up to look rustic. Created from a parking lot, the original flooring and the wide pillars have been incorporated in the decor, and elements like roughly painted white-brick walls and Edison's bulbs added to enhance this vibe.
Ivy served continental and Italian food. The tossed garden salad had all the key ingredients -- red peppers, vinegar dressing and cherry tomatoes. The vegetable Mediterranean sandwich, which included zucchini, sundried tomatoes and pesto sauce along with three kinds of cheese, was indulgent, and went well with a strawberry shake. With this, my first day finally came to an end.
The next noon, I visited the boutique hotel, Rokeby Manor -- up a ridge off Char Dukan -- a gargantuan mansion in brick and intricate slate stonework, with arches and alcoves, and British lamp posts. A part of the Mars Hospitality Group, the original construction dates back to 1840.
Emily's on the first floor resembles an alpine log house. The interiors are by Rachna Narang. Some of the highlights include plates showing sceneries from European villages and two vintage cabinets -- shone in a shade of buff and the other in a pastel blue -- that housed all kinds of cutlery.
Though Emily's serves continental and Indian, I felt more inclined towards the former. First came the mustard chicken, cooked and marinated to perfection, followed by ratatouille, my favourite French dish, heaped with capsicum, Parmesan cheese, zucchini and aubergine. The chicken olivetti (chicken wrapped olives cooked in a mix of Worcester and HP sauce) had a rather unique tang, but one I found addictive at once. And the desserts really took things to new heights -- I savoured the apple crumble with dollops of applesauce, and couldn't leave behind even a drop of the Rokeby sticky toffee pudding's sauce.
Next, I headed to the Landour Bazaar Road again, to Little Llama Café, which can best be described as 'labour of love'. Its owners, Lynette and Tenzin, a married couple who were once childhood sweethearts, moved back to their hometown, Mussoorie, three years back. Despite having no culinary background, they decided to open a café. Lynette took charge of the kitchen and Tenzin, operations.
They learned to cook everything from scratch, and soon saw their place become popular among Woodstock students. The couple then began to focus on items the kids would like, and got in some high-quality, difficult-to-source food products and ingredients. Soon, the menu had countless items, and the 10-seater restaurant became a two-floor 50-seater.
Their interiors are spick and span, the decor a playful mix of blue, grey and walnut, chalkboards with cute messages and vibrant illustrations. In future, Little Llama may introduce a traditional wood-fired oven for pizzas and breads.
I was first served a 'master of the universe' pizza, with three types of pork, three types of cheese, and vegetables. The mutton burger had a juicy lamb patty, while the Naga pork rice (served with red rice, bamboo shoot and naga mirchi with burnt chilli) was quite a standout. The drinks too were unique -- I took a mixed berry smoothie (with actual frozen raspberries, blueberries and blackberries) and iced hibiscus tea.
On my third and final day, I reached the finish line of my trail -- Doma's Inn, with its vibrant faccedilade of multicoloured walls and a large painted dragon. The place appeared to be strictly Tibetan-themed at first glance, but I learned it is owned by a travel-loving family who like to pick up whatever catches their fancy. At the café, for instance, you see a Garuda mask from Bali and a devil's mask from Bangkok.
Doma's Inn has mostly been Tashi Nima's parents' baby, though the son is doing a pretty good job managing it. He told me of the care with which it was done up, for instance, the intricate pattern on the ceiling was done by students of thangka art (Tibetan Buddhist painting), who worked on it for nine whole months. The food here has an interesting story too. The family once had a place called Momo Café in Landour's main market, famous for its Tibetan food. Doma's carries forward that legacy.
I had my last meal in Landour at Doma's café. First came the pork shyaphaley, which had meat stuffed in Tibetan bread and then deep-fried. It reminded me of a patty, but was softer and tastier. Then, I had the roasted pork chilli, made by cooking the meat for a long time in a particular masala. With every bite, I unearthed more of the rich, complex taste. The shaptak, done in a chilli-based sauce with capsicum, onion and sliced meat, came next, and had a milder, 'just about right' flavour. I rounded the meal off with good old dimsums -- chicken and cheese, in this case. Though you can't go wrong with these, the addition of the cheese really did stir up my taste buds and make the heart melt.
And it is this stirring up of the taste buds and the melting of the heart that best describe my Landour food trail. I'd found something delicious at every corner, but the tales behind the dishes were what truly made my heart grow fonder. And, in many ways, these even narrated to me the story of Landour, which is startlingly rich for a place so tiny. With a heart so big, can a town really be called small?
Landour Bakehouse (Sisters Bazaar)
A. Prakash & Co. (Sisters Bazaar)
Clock Tower Café (Clock Tower, Landour Bazaar Road, Rajmandi)
Anil's Café (Char Dukan, Landour Cantonment, Near SBI bank)
Café Ivy (Char Dukan)
Tip Top Tea Shop (Char Dukan)
Emily's (First floor, Rokeby Manor, Landour Cantonment)
Little Llama Café (1, London House, Picture Palace, Kulri, Mussoorie)
Café and restaurant at Doma's Inn (Ivy Cottage, above Mullingar Hill, Landour Cantonment))