Singing in the rain and eating too. 5 food stops at Pune's Koregaon Park.


Cappuccino, Thai fried rice, charcoal burger with quinoa and black bean patty
One O Eight Lifestyle Cafe Pune

This post is the first of a series of my travelogues based on my recent, rather short trip to Pune, where I had gone to get a taste of the city's food culture. It is about Koregaon Park, a suburb which till recently was not considered to be 'proper Pune'. Today, there are some who would say that it is the hub of modern Pune. Koregaon park is most famous for being home to the Osho Commune. I didn't go there but I did eat at a few of the local favourite joints.

Back to Pune after two decades


“There’s a McDonald’s at Panvel before the Expressway right? Can you stop there if we pass it by?” I asked the driver of the Ola Outstation cab which I had just boarded from outside our home in Mumbai a couple of weeks back. Our destination? Pune.

“There’s a nice, new food court on the Expressway. We can take a break there, ” he replied.

“But does it have a coffee place? ... Like a CCD,” I tentatively asked.

“They have a Starbucks,” said the young man, looking at me as if I was Rip Van Winkle and had just woken up after a twenty year long nap.

The Mumbai Pune expressway in the rains, August 2018


Well, he was not that far away from the truth. As I mentioned earlier, I was on my way to Pune from Mumbai that morning and I hadn’t travelled on this route in a long, long time. 

My initial visits to Pune happened around twenty years back. I had just joined a market research agency then, after completing my MBA in Kolkata, and had moved into Mumbai. I went to Pune a couple of times back then to conduct focus groups. I had gone to a famous restaurant there named Vaishali on one such trip and had the SPDP chaat there in the evenings. On another visit, I went to Kayani Bakery to buy Shrewsbury biscuits after I reached Pune at noon, but they had said that were closed for the afternoon. I later learnt that the shop and even the city is famous for this. As a Bengali I could empathise with the folks at Kayani and Pune. Siesta comes first right? Mumbaikars will never get this.

I had made these trips before the Mumbai Pune Expressway came up. I did use to Expressway later in my career as a market researcher. That’s when I was heading the automotive market research unit in the same agency where I had started my career as a researcher, IMRB. Our trips then were to client offices at Pimpdi Chinchwad and I never ended up going to Pune

Which is why, even though Pune is just next door to Mumbai, I had never gone there after I started writing on food. Nor have I written about Pune till now.

I had been meaning to redress this for a while. I finally did so on a whim. This was just before the Independence Day break in mid August.  K was travelling on work and I suddenly got the idea of going to Pune.

The weather was nice. I had time to kill. I wanted to write about a place I hadn’t before. So, I decided to book a hotel through the Internet and use the outstation cab facilities and head out to Pune, and I am so glad I did so. I did have a ball of a time and a very happy trip.

I plan to tell you about some of what I experienced there over a series of posts. This is the first one. Oh, and yes. We did stop at the mall. I had a lovely pohe and vada pav from the Shree Krishna stall run by folks from Bhiwandi and then a short cappuccino with an extra shot at McDonalds. The food court that we stopped on the way back, late at night was no as svelte though.


The enchanted world of Koregaon Park


The by-lanes of Koregaon Park
In this post, I will tell you about Koregaon Park. This is an area in Pune that I had based myself in during this trip, and which I fell in love with and felt most at home in. 


Let me first tell you how I landed up there. There were a few people whom I had reached out to on social media on suggestions on what to do in Pune. Specifically, on where to eat. Radhika Dossa, who had grown up in Pune and Lonavala, and who has returned to Pune to live after a short stint in Mumbai, was one of them. Radhika and I had started off as ‘Instagram friends’ and then discovered other connections too. She works in ad film production, as does her husband. That's how they know K, who works in advertising. Radhika is the one I turned to the most with questions on what to do in Pune with. 

Radhika suggested that I stay at Koregaon Park and recommended the Vivanta Blue Diamond Hotel as a place to base myself when I told her that I would prefer to check into a nice hotel. The Blue Diamond is the most iconic hotel of Pune it seems and has changed management over the years. It is now run by the Taj group and falls under the Vivanta brand. I booked a room through their website and was happy with my decision. The location of the hotel, as Radhika had said it would be, was quite good. I had gone for a basic room which was rather small (especially the bathroom) but it still turned out to be one of the most happiest and cheerful hotel rooms that I have stayed in. The room was designed elegantly. Had a nice view and was brightly lit through natural light during the day and with the lights in the room otherwise. There was a nice settee with a foot rest and a good hot shower. The staff was helpful and forever smiling. I couldn’t have been happier.

My room in the Blue Diamond


I had heard of Koregaon Park right since my early days in Mumbai. I was told then that it is an area that is slightly cut off from Pune city. It was famous then for being the base for the Osho commune and for having lovely gardens and quaint bakeries, including the famous German Bakery. 

Things have changed now. Osho or Rajneesh is no more. We recently watched his fascinating story on the Netflix series, Wild Wild Country. The commune is still operational though and I did see a few folks walking around in purple robes as people in the commune are supposed to do. I am told that the place is not as buzzing as it once was. There’s a lovely garden called Nallah Park there which I could not make it to. The German Bakery is still around but again I was told that is not longer the sought after hangout that it once. was especially after the unfortunate bomb blast that had happened there a few years back. 

Koregaon Park, once not considered as not a part of ‘proper Pune’ by locals, is today a well connected part of the city. Some would say that it is the heart of modern Pune. It has lots of greenery and some beautiful buildings too with a big road running through it. It is home to many restaurants and cafes, including some rather hip ones at that. I went to a diverse mix of them and let me tell you about what I experienced there.

Malaka Spice


Add: Lane Number 5, Ashok Chakra Society, Meera Nagar, Koregaon Park, Pune, Maharashtra 411001

With Radhika Dossa at Malaka Spice


I could not come to Pune and not go to Malaka Spice could I! It is such a local institution after all.

K had come to Pune a decade back on a shoot and had eaten at Malaka Spice then. She returned to Mumbai from the trip and had excitedly told me about her meal. Malaka Spice is a twenty year old Pune modern legend that serves Asian food. At the time when K went there, there were hardly any standalone Asian restaurants of note in Mumbai, which made Malaka Spice seem most novel. Things have changed now with Mumbai now being home to tons of Asian restaurants and Malaka Spice might not seem as unique to Mumbaikars anymore. Malaka Spice remains a Pune and Koregaon Park favourite though even after all these years it seems. It has branches at Baner and Viman Nagar too.

Malaka Spice was founded in 1997 by a husband and wife duo. Banker turned restaurateur, Praful Chandawarkar and his wife, Cheeru Chandawarkar. Cheeru is no more unfortunately as she lost her life to cancer. She is sorely missed by the fans of Malaka Spice I am told. 

Radhika and I went there for dinner on my first night at Pune. It seemed that everyone, from the staff to many of the diners, knew Radhika there. She’s been eating at Malaka for years I learnt. The restaurant had an indoor section too but Radhika suggested that we sit in the outside section and I am glad that she did so. There was a slight nip in the air that night. The weather was damp. The place was lit by the yellow glow of lamps which gave it lovely feel. The tables were packed and the buzz was happy and yet not noisy. It reminded me a bit of Out of The Blue in Bandra, but to be honest a nice outdoor seating experience like this is rare in Mumbai and that’s what I enjoyed the most about the visit.

Top hat at Malaka Spice


We tried a dish called the Top Hat, based on Radhika’s suggestion. It is an appetiser. The dish consists of semi-cylindrical canapes, stuffed with flavourful and tender pulled duck and lots of sprouts. I loved the contrast of textures in the dish. 

The Asian fare here is supposed to be more 'inspired' than 'authentic' and that is what I felt too. The ‘Singaporean prawn sambal’ tasted more like the good old sweet and sour prawns of yore, minus the pineapple chunks, than the sambals I had eaten at Singapore and in Malaysia. Funnily enough, this made them taste rather comforting and I kept taking forkfuls of it. The prawns were nice and juicy and not overcooked. They believe in sustenance eating here I am told and focus on locally grown produce. I liked the fact that there was a diagram in the menu to explain the seasonality of fish and their subsequent availability. 

The chicken nasi goreng that we ordered was rather wet and greasy and was nothing to write home about. 

Still, at Rs 2,700 odd for the meal with a sangria and small whiskey added in, and the great vibe outdoors, I would say that it was quite a good deal. 

I was happy at finally making it to Malaka Spice, ten years after I had first planned to.

Nasi Goreng, Singaporean prawn sambal


Arthur’s Theme


Add: 1/2, Lane Number 6, Liberty Phase 2, Ragvilas Society, Lane Number 6, Liberty Phase 2, Ragvilas Society, Koregaon Park, Pune, Maharashtra 411001

With Rashmi Varma at Arthur's Theme


The other Koregaon classic that I went to during the trip, was Arthur’s Theme. I went there on my last evening in Pune before I headed back to Mumbai. Advised by Radhika and others, I had decided to leave late at night from Pune to Mumbai avoid the traffic. I had a bit of a wobble that evening when my Ola Outstation cab cancelled on me at the last minute and I had to book another but that worked out fine.

I went to Arthur’s Theme that night following a recommendation by my friend Dr Kurush Dalal. From what I gathered, Arthur's Theme was a favourite hang out of Kurush and his then future wife, Rhea. This is from a time when they lived in Pune. Kurush is someone whose recommendations I bank on so I didn't think twice about going to Arthur's Theme.  I even called him up, once settled in  at the restaurant, to know what to order. Interestingly, each dish in the menu has a Christian name. Kurush didn’t have to think twice before telling me what to order. 

Kurush's picks and what I went with were as follows: 

1. Artois: a stuffed chicken roulade covered with a cheese sauce with potato croquettes on the side

2. Gwen: duck from local farms, roasted in the oven for 5 hours and served with an intense cheese cased sauce on the side. 

Bread rolls and butter were served on the house. What struck me about both dishes was how well the meat had been cooked in each. 

Artois


The chicken roulade gave in like silk and had none of the chewy dryness that one associates with chicken. 

The duck was well done and was rendered ever so tender. I have rarely come across duck that is as adeptly cooked, as the one at Arthurs was, in India. The food was slightly old school at Arthur's in my opinion, but was very top notch.

Gwen


This twenty year old restaurant was opened, like Malacca Spice, in 1997. They have a few more branches and are planning one in Mumbai, the younger of two Sahani brothers, Punjabis who own the restaurant, and who was at the restaurant that evening, told me. He told me that his elder brother had studied hotel management in Austria years back and was inspired to set up a restaurant based on what he had experienced there. Arthur's Theme was what followed.

Giving me company for that dinner was Rashmi Verma. Rashmi, a former Mumbaikar who lives in Pune now, is an Arthur’s Theme fan too. Rashmi said that she had always seen the owners at this outlet whenever she came here. 

Rashmi was my first boss in Mumbai in market research. Twenty years later, we are friends now and someday I hope to convince her that I am no longer a trainee and let her let me take the tab!  

Rashmi and I had earlier gone to the lovely Starbucks close to the Vivanta where I had also gone for my #FirstCappuccinoOfTheDay that morning. Those who follow me on Instagram will recognise the hashtag. I liked the vibe of the place. At Starbucks I usually go for a short cappuccino with an extra shot to ensure that it is to my liking.

The French Window


 Add: Lane Number 5, Next to Malaka Spice, Opposite Mughal Garden, Koregaon Park, Pune, Maharashtra 411001

With Radhika and her daughter at French Window


I was keen to check out some of the cafes of Koreagon Park. Unfortunately, I was there on a Monday when many places in Pune are shut including its cafes. Radhika took me to a place called the  French Window Patisserie, which was open, for breakfast and her daughter joined us too.

French Window is a café set around what seems like an enchanted garden. It is run by a young lady named Babita who is a trained patisserie chef from France. Babita was running from one table to another that morning, sporting a calm smile, making everyone feel at home. Radhika is a regular here too as she is at Malaka Spice. The café has a few dogs hanging around. I made friends made with one named Hippy, an abandoned stray, whom Babita is looking after till they find foster parents for her. I must say that Hippy was very well behaved.

That's Babita in the black tee and Radhika and her daughter in white


Babita’s bakery training shone through in the excellent quality of the toasted brown bread served with the eggs here. Radhika had a masala omelette which had a beautifully soft and rather French omelette-like centre. Her daughter had an egg Benedict, where the poached egg was, listen to this, served in a delightfully buttery croissant. Both dishes were lovely.

Scrambled egg with ham, eggs benedict croissant sandwich and masala omelette
at French Window


I wasn’t a big fan of the scrambled egg that I ordered as its texture was a bit rough and choppy and not creamy the way I like it to be. The cappuccino, again, not the best I have had. 

The girls most sweetly shared a bit of their dishes with me though.

How was the overall experience at French Window?

Well, I am really glad that I went there and when I left, I messaged K and said, ‘we must come here one day.’


One O Eight Lifestyle Cafe


Add: Level 1, Business Square, Above Nature's Basket, Lane 5, Koregaon Park, Pune, Maharashtra 411001

With Rupparna, One O Eight Cafe, Pune


I went to this quasi restaurant for lunch, on the second day of my stay at Pune. I zeroed in on it on the basis of a recommendation by Mumbai based blogger, Roxanne Bamboat of Tiny Taster. Roxanne spends quite a bit of time in Pune. She told me that One O Eight is her favourite place here and added that it is a ‘hipster’ place with only vegetarian fare and eggs but that she (she is a Parsi and loves meat) loves it inspite of this.

One O Eight is located on the first floor of a business office. The space is large by Mumbai standards. It enclosed by glass windows and seems more ‘modern’ than the other quaint Koregaon Park bakeries. 

I caught up with a young lady named Rupparna over lunch at One O Eight. Rupparna, a fellow probashi (expat) Bengali, turned out to be a fellow Nicherin Buddhist too. She had studied engineering, then worked in NGOs and now plans to appear in the UPSC exams and hopes to make a difference to society by working in the civil service. Like Radhika, Rupparna, was someone that I met for the first time in this trip. Turns out that she has been reading my blog for the last eight years and I was most happy to meet her in person and thank her for this. 

Knowing whatever she knew of me through my blog, Radhika was a bit aghast on seeing a veg and egg based, meatless menu at One O Eight. She offered to go somewhere else instead so that I could get something 'good' to eat. I reassured her that my food preferences have changed of late. I told her about the #LittleJackHornerMeals diet that I have scoped for myself these days and calmed her down and told her that the food here would fit in with that.

Cappuccinos at One O Eight


We started our meals with a couple of cappuccinos and these were definitely more refined and better prepared than the one at French Window.

Thai fried rice with brown rice


For our lunch, I chose a Thai mixed veg rice made with brown rice and a fried egg. My mother later saw a picture of this of Facebook and wrote in saying, ‘this is your sort of food.’ She was right. This looked like exactly the sort of dish that I would make for my lunch at home. Tasted good too, the flavours well balanced and the dish was not over-sauced unlike the Nasi Goreng at at Malaka.

I ordered what one call the ultimate ‘hipster dish’ with this. Black charcoal burger buns, made with ragi (millet) flour, and a black bean and quinoa patty. I hope that I don’t lose any old readers for saying this, but I really did enjoy the burger. The patty was juicy and moist and the bun was nice and firm and not crumbly at all. Yes, the meat worshipping 'Knife' of Finely Chopped of old has mellowed with time. 

The meal at One O Eight cost us about Rs 1,000 or so and was of pretty good quality.

Quinoa charcoal burger bun


On a side note, I was impressed by the quality of the bathrooms here at Malacca and French Window too.

Khanduji and Nanda Mausi's thela near French Window Cafe, Koregaon Park


With Radhika Dossa, Nanda and her husband Khandu


This is the surprise entry of the post. The best food that I had at Koregaon Park was  here and no it was neither an organic nor an international inspired cafe. It was very aamchi ('ours' in Marathi) you could say. I am talking of a tiny, two year old food cart located outside the French Window Cafe. It is run by an elderly Maharashtrian couple, Khanduji and his wife, Nanda Mausi, who is the chef too. It is the sort of place that is referred to as maushi’s thela (aunty’s cart). 

It was raining when we got out of Radhika’s car when we reached French Window, a place I have mentioned earlier in the post. I saw their cart and decided to try some of the misal on offer. Misal is to Pune what hot dogs are to New York and fish and chips are to London it seems and the piping hot misal by Nanda mausi was just the spicy pick me up that one needed in the damp weather.  I saw that she had pohe on offer too and I tried that. The sweetish pohe, topped with a savoury shev topping and a dash of the misal sample (gravy), was pure genius. 


Misal pav and pohe


I saw that she also had batata vadas on offer, makes masala omelettes too and serves chai. I had to restrain myself from ordering more food as we had breakfast plans. 

What I ate here was some of the best food that I had on the trip. Might I add that my description of the food is shorn of any undue romanticism. This was seriously good food. I enjoyed the misal here even more than that at the legendary places of Pune that I tried here the next day. They served the misal with pav at  the cart. Not sliced bread unlike in some of the other traditional places in Pune. Misal with pav is a combination that I am familiar with in Mumbai and enjoyed more than with sliced bread.


And here's why I was singing in the rain

Radhika had compared Koregaon Park with Bandra, the suburb that I live in Mumbai and said that I would enjoy it and sure enough, I did love it. I felt most at home there. When I met K back in Mumbai later, I told her that we must come to Pune during the rains sometime and base ourselves at Koregaon Park. I am surprised that unlike Lonavla, Matheran or even Goa, Pune doesn't feature among the list of monsoon getaways among Mumbaikars. My trip told me that one should.

However, it would be wrong to go to Koregaon Park and think that this is what Pune is all about. In fact, you must have noticed a fair bit of diversity in what I ate at Koregaon Park itself. Let me assure that the city of Pune offers even more variety. Incidentally, while each restaurant that I went to at Koregaon Park was different, they were all heart and the owners seemed to have put their soul into them. This showed in the earnest quality of the food and the service too. While Koregaon Park was a nice transition point between Bandra and Mumbai and Pune. The other places that I went to were more 'uniquely' Pune one could say.

Despite this being a terribly tiny trip, I did manage to go the Camp and the Cantonment areas of Pune where the Parsis and the British traditionally lived and to the city's Maharashtrian core of the peth areas, referred to as 'city' by locals.

Those are worlds far removed from Koregaon Park and have their own charms. I will tell you about them too soon hopefully.



Appendix:

Videos from my YouTube channel: Finely Chopped by Kalyan Karmakar (please subscribe to the channel)

French Window Patisserie



One O Eight Cafe




Khandu and Nanda Mausi's Stall:




Pictures:

Mumbai Pune Expressway (August 2018)






New Express Way Food Court (while facing Pune)



Malaka Spice:

Outside

Inside

Arthur's Theme and the lane where it is located


The lane

French Window Cafe





Starbucks Koregaon Park


Vivanta Blue Diamond:




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