Okay, so the dedicated reader would know that I spent around five weeks in Bhutan recently (in the capital, Thimphu). In my posts from there, I said that I wasn’t overly keen on Bhutanese food. It’s all about red rice, some sort of bitter-tasting buckwheat pancake, lots of chillies and cheese. I found it rather bland to be honest. We did find an Indian restaurant (Chula Restaurant), which is in Norzim Lam (main street of Thimphu), but compared to the Indian food we get in Australia, I found it less than tasty.

I did find some good cafes and small eateries though. My favourite was Karma’s Coffee in the Zhamling Building on Phendey Lam and operated by Karma (not my horse but a chap whose first name is Karma LOL). It’s not located on Norzim Lam and is a bit out of the way. When you see the general area and the building, you wonder how on earth a decent coffee shop could exist there. Karma’s Coffee is on the second floor of the Zhamling building and has a lovely (if somewhat dark) ambiance. The menu isn’t vast but, if you’re after a decent coffee, a good chocolate brownie or a hearty breakfast, then this is the place.

And speaking of their breakfast, they offer up an all-day breakfast that I’m sure featured Spam. As a kid, my Dad used to do a fry up of spam with eggs. They also serve what looks like melted butter to plonk on your toast. A bit odd but tasty nonetheless. Service was prompt, friendly and there’s also free wifi. The owner of the cafe, Karma, told us he learnt all about coffee in Melbourne. One thing I didn’t get about Karma’s is the smoking room at the back of the cafe: tobacco is banned in Bhutan but I guess it’s especially for chilips (Bhutanese word for foreigners).

My next fav cafe was the Art Cafe, which is located behind the traffic circle, up the stairs leading to the Swiss Bakery and to the left of the bakery (Doebum Lam). Oh but don’t bother going to the Swiss Bakery – it used to have a great reputation apparently but has gone downhill. We walked in and walked straight back out!

First thing I’ll say about the Art Cafe is you’re not going to get decent coffee here unless you love instant coffee. Second thing is – the service isn’t all that friendly. However, you’ll get a good toasted sandwich with fries, decent soup and some great cakes (especially the Banoffee Pie). I have no idea why it’s called the Art Cafe as there’s not a hint of art in the place. Unless one considers a cow milk jug and a few kitsch signs to be “art”.  You can sit outside and watch people pass by but I preferred to be inside, especially to watch a loaf of bread being baked on top of the oven in the cafe itself.

Also good was Ambient Cafe, which is upstairs in a building right near the traffic circle. Letho, the owner, is very friendly and the cafe is bright and tastefully decorated with a large window overlooking Norzim Lam. You’ll bump into many chilips here and we all enjoyed the great cappuccinos, milkshakes and food over free wifi. I really liked the vanilla cappuccino (although a little too sweet) and I could cheerfully have eaten the granola with yogurt and banana for breakfast every day. Letho told me he makes the granola himself and it’s really fresh on Tuesday (the cafe is closed on Mondays, so you hotfoot it to Karma’s). His lovely wife makes the cakes and the best one is a chocolate and peanut butter combo. The menu is better at Ambient Cafe than Karma’s but I preferred the quiet, relaxing atmosphere of Karma’s just a bit more and I think the coffee was better.

These three cafes we hung out in most, although we did try Cafe Italia located upstairs in the Dewa Khangzang Building on Chang Lam. I found the decor a little too bland although the Illy coffee was good. We had a small pizza for lunch one day; it was so-so. We never did get into Cafe Klein, which is directly behind Druk PNB Bank. You can reach it by descending the stairs to the left of the bank, then turning right and the cafe is a few doors down. It was always closed when we tried to go there.

For restaurants, a standout was the Upstairs Restaurant (located in the new supermarket called MyMart on Chang Lam). It is literally upstairs and over the supermarket, which is a tad odd but the restaurant offers great pizza – better than those at Season’s Pizzeria in my view. I also enjoyed their penne pasta and Marsala tea, whilst gazing at the commanding views of the eastern Thimphu mountains.

Actually, a vivid memory I’ll always have is one night, whilst eating at Upstairs, Thimphu suffered an electricity blackout (a reasonably regular occurrence). The staff brought out little candles for the tables and this provided that dreamy kind of atmosphere. As I looked out the windows towards the large Dzong (or Buddhist monastery) on the Western bank of the Wang Chu river, I could see it was all lit up. Presumably, it has its own power supply. What a beautiful sight. Darkness all around except for the twinkling lights of the commanding Dzong in the distance.

There is an outdoor terrace at Upstairs Restaurant but, since it was Winter, we didn’t get to sit there. I imagine it would be wonderful in Summer though. The menu is quite varied with Asian food and you can enjoy a Lavazza coffee (although I was obsessed with the Marsala tea so didn’t try the coffee). Service was very friendly and you could stock up on essential items at the supermarket downstairs on your way out.

A newish restaurant that we also tried twice was Mezze, which is located on the second floor of the building to the left of the Druk PNB Bank (and diagonally opposite Ambient Cafe). This is where you go if you want a more upmarket experience and pay a higher price. But the menu and service is excellent. I really liked the Risotto con Funghi and the sago dessert (forget the name of it).

We did try out the Bhutan Kitchen upstairs in a building on Gatoen Lam. Here you sit on cushions on the floor and sip the traditional sud-ja (butter tea). Obviously, you get Bhutanese food here so it’s all red rice, chillies and buckwheat pancakes (and the fried potatoes were excellent). Bhutan Kitchen is more for tourists in my view and I found the food and service average.

If you really want to sample authentic Bhutanese food, then the place to go is the Folk Heritage Restaurant (Pedzoe Lam, Kawangjangtsa). It’s about a five minute drive (if that) from the centre of Thimphu and here you will find locals, not so much tourists. The restaurant is located in an impressive, traditional Bhutanese building on the grounds of the Folk Heritage Museum. I found the buckwheat pancakes here very bitter but enjoyed the rest of the Bhutanese food. We visited this eatery in our first week in Bhutan, so I wasn’t yet sick of Bhutanese fare!

Should you be in Thimphu for an extended stay, you can certainly visit all the cafes and restaurants and enjoy variety. And if, like me, you adore cappuccinos, you won’t be disappointed if you head to Karma’s or Ambient Cafe.

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Letho, the owner of Ambient Cafe, is on the right.

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Food menu – Ambient Cafe.

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Coffee, tea and drinks menu – Ambient Cafe.

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Interior of Art Cafe.

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Can’t recall what this cake was but it was a good one – Art Cafe.

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You don’t quite get sarcasm at Art Cafe but the service isn’t the friendliest.

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Cake counter at Art Cafe.

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Toasted sandwich with fries – Art Cafe.

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Giant cups at the Art Cafe. Plus Banoffee Pie – delish!!

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Chocolate peanut cake combo – Ambient Cafe – delish!!!

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You can sit outside the Art Cafe.

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Interior of Karma’s Coffee.

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The all-day breakfast at Karma’s Coffee – is that fried Spam? The menu says ham but it tasted like Spam to me.

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Melted butter to plonk on your toast – Karma’s Coffee.

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This was great – Karma Coffee’s signature chocolate brownie with vanilla ice-cream.

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