Vohuman Cafe. The 41 year old Irani cafe that is Pune's favourite youth food hang out and more Mumbai to Pune food stories

Anda bhurjee. Bun maska jam. Bread butter. Toast butter. Cheese omelette. Plain omelette. Vohuman Cafe

Mumbai to Pune down the Expressway with a few vada pavs in between

While I had been to Pune a few times on work in the early years of my career as a market researcher, August last year was the first time that I had gone to Pune specifically to explore its restaurant scene. Among the few whose suggestions I banked upon during the trip, was young Jayesh Paranjape. A proud Puneri, who had gone to the UK to study tourism management and then came back to his home town where he runs a travel agency named Western Routes. He does food walks and is a restaurant critic for the Bombay Times too. One of the most memorable parts of my trip last year was the food walk to the Cantonment area that he had taken me on. His suggestions came of use the day after when I went on a misal hunt in old Pune.

I was back in Pune this August. Once again during the rains. The drive down the Mumbai Pune expressway in the rains was once again rather romantic. More so this time, as K was with me and I was not on a solo travel trip. Plus the food stops on the Expressway talked straight to the heart.

Pohe, misal, vada pav, batata vad, pav. Shree Krishna

We went to the Shree Krishna vada pav stall at the food court on the way to Pune and had lovely vada pavs (K loved this too and we had to wait as they make them fresh), misal and pohe, followed by cappuccinos at Starbucks. The latter had very clean toilets though the this food court per se has decent ones too.

On the way back to Mumbai, we went to the food court on the Expressway set up by the folks who originally ran the legendary Shree Datta snacks counter on the old Pune highway, and where you get a smorgasbord of vegetarian Maharashtrian snacks. We had lovely vada pavs here (made fresh once again) and since I can never say no to a fresh plate of pohe, a poha too. A number of dishes such as the kothimbir vadi, khichdi and sabudana vada here were recommended to me by readers, but I had to give these a miss as I had had lunch an hour back. We bought some lovely bhakar vadi (different from the ones at Chitale Bandhu at Pune which had a grated coconut filling) and chakli and shakar pada from the stall at the Shree Datta food court which stocked products from local brands.

The price at both Shree Datta and Shree Krishna harked back to another era and a 100 Rupee note would buy you a lot here!

The Shree Datta food court is a wonderful example of a local business growing big. Wish the food court next to it which has many international names, was cleaner and less mucky. Did not dare to go to the toilets there. The Cafe Coffee Day on the other side was nice. More can done I feel to encourage folks like Shree Datta who are bringing local treasures into the spotlight and to make the place appealing to modern travellers by offering an international level experience

What was not so 'lovely' about both our trips, were the 6 hours that it took us to reach the city centre in Pune from Bandra, and the 5 hours that it took on the way back. We travelled by a private cab. I was told that the extra time required due to our travelling in the weekend leading to the start of the Ganesh Chaturthi festival, when people from Mumbai go to meet their families across Maharashtra.

The other thing that I did not like about our journey was that the food court halt on the way back to Mumbai which, unlike the one while heading to Pune, still remains grimy and mucky. This despite it having a section with independent stalls including QSR chains, and the Shree Datta section and coffee shops. I remember it looking rather nightmarish in the rains when I stopped there at night last year. As it did this time in the evening. Thank god for the CCD outlet for its clean toilet and nice cappuccino, but to the guys who run this complex, just cross the road and see what is possible when it comes to making Swach Bharat and Incredible India and other such slogans come to life. It's the same country. The same road for God's sake!

Cribs done with it, there is no denying that K and I loved our trip. When I came back from my trip to Pune last year, I had told K that we should go there together some day. During the rains if possible. I had no idea that my dream would come true so soon. Perhaps I should have wished for something more!

The life of a food blogger

At the end our food blogging meet at Pune

I went to Pune this time to take part in a session on food blogging organised by Jayesh and Dushyant Bhatia. Dushyant is a software engineer who runs a food blog called Eating Cultures. They plan to run a series of programmes together to help those in Pune who want to start blogging on food. The plans they have in mind to help the community grow are very impressive, much needed and rather unique to from what I know of the food blogging world in India.

I got the opportunity to share whatever little I have learnt on blogging so far in their inaugural session through a conversation with Dushyant. The meet was ably hosted by the Grand Sheraton Bund Gardens, near the Pune Station, which has come up in place of the Le Meridian there. The hotel had organised a lovely cheese and coffee themed high tea after the talk. I was very impressed by the enthusiasm of the participants of the meet and the great work put in by the organisers.

K and I stayed at the hotel and they most kindly upgraded us to a suite. We were most impressed by the sense of luxury that both the suite and the common areas of the hotel exuded. We had dinner at Chingari, their Awadhi roof top restaurant, where the executive chef said that he has been with the hotel for 14 years or so. The passion and warmth of the entire service staff was endearing and the food - mutton gulauti, black dal, a potato and moong dal tikki/ kebab were our favs - was packed with heart.

Pune's Pop Tate. Hormuz Irani.

I wanted to have at least one local meal before I left Pune and things could not get better than the place where Dushyant and Jayesh took me to breakfast the next morning before I headed back to Mumbai. I am talking of Vohuman Cafe, which is located close to the Pune station and to our hotel too. This is a place that many had recommended that I should go to during my last visit to the city but I could not then due to time constraints. The time I did, all thanks to the two kind gentlemen who had driven quite a bit on a Sunday to come and meet me for breakfast.

Vohuman Cafe was started on 15th August 1978 by an Irani gentleman named Hormuz Irani. He was born in Mumbai and had moved into Pune. His father had migrated to India from Iran. The original Vohuman was a tiny shop from what I understand, where the late Mr Irani sold omelettes and toast butter and tea.  Vohuman Cafe soon became a Pune favourite, especially with the students of the city. A city that the first prime minister of India, the late Jawaharlal Nehru, had called "the Oxford and Cambridge of India." Meet anyone who has studied in Pune and they will talk fondly of Vohuman and 'uncle'/ 'bawaji' as Hormuz Irani was affectionately called. A gentleman who was famous for his warmth, generosity and bold sense of humour from. Folks also loved the fact that the food served here was both easy on the stomach and on the wallet.

Turned out that I had come to Vohuman a bit late in life, or perhaps not. The late Hormuz Irani had passed away on 28th November, 2016. The 'original' Vohuman Cafe does not exist anymore either. It is now located at a new premise (which is what I visited) and to which they had moved to on 27th November 2015. Old Mr Hormuz passed away a year later, succumbing to poor health, but not before making sure that Vohuman Cafe continued to feed the students of Pune.

With Dushyant Bhatia and Jayesh Paranjape after I coached a young lady at the table next to us on the art of taking 'candid pictures'

The new place is much larger than the old place and has two floors compared to the earlier, humble shed where the story of Vohuman Cafe had started. Jayesh, who was a regular at the old place during his college days told me that even though he misses 'uncle,' he feels that the new place does retain the vibe of old in terms of the consistency of the food and the youthful buzz. You still have to queue in to get a place and old timers recognise the few marble topped tables from the original outlet. We sat at one of them that Sunday. Dushyant, who used to go to the original outlet for toast butter and fried eggs in the early days of his working career, nodded his head in agreement when he heard what Jayesh had to say. The place still gave a sense of joy, he said.

Dedicated to Nigel Slater and his ode to Toasts

We ordered anda burjee (spicy tight scrambled eggs), plain omelettes, cheese omelettes, bread butter, toast butter and bun maska (butter) jam. The breakfast spelt 'India' in big and bold letters in my opinion. This was the sort of omelettes and bhurjees that we have grown up eating at home, in trains, railway stations, in various 'dhaaba' and their cousins such as the Irani cafes of Mumbai or the bhaater hotels of Kolkata for example, and on street-side stalls too. Food that spelt comfort and has fuelled our nation's progress. We washed down our repast with the best energy drinks that our country knows. Hot, milky, sugary tea.

The cheese omelette at Vohuman deserves a Nobel

There are a few things that struck me about what I ate that morning at Vohuman. First was the good quality of the ingredients used, the oil for example. This ensured that one did not leave the restaurant with a heavy feeling. This was food that both the gut and heart would approved of. I later learnt that the breads here have been sourced from a bakery called the Persian Bakery for the last 40 years. Second, was the generosity on offer all around. The toast and bun was layered with more butter than what even what a doting grandmother would dish out for her favourite grandchild. The cheese omelette offered bites of cheese in every bite that you took. The pieces of cheese in it was solid and not melted. Ample and palpable. The cheese was the simple processed cheese that we have grown up on. I could imagine a student, who was far away from home in Pune, feeling at home and as snug as a bug with every bite that he took here.

Vohuman prices, August 2019

The third, thing that I would like to talk about is the friendly service. Despite the place being packed and with people waiting to get in, you are not hurried by the waiters once you are inside.  Even if you wanted to take a million pictures for Instagram. Or wanted the waiters to take yours. They were prompt in taking your orders and getting your food and then would let you be. Most seemed to be old hands who were proud to work here.

Remains a favourite with the Instagram generation

I spotted a gentleman sitting at the cash counter with a tray covered with a Matterhorn like pile of Amul butter placed in front of him. He was handling both the rush of customers at the counter and the demands of his own staff too with aplomb. Smiling on as he worked through the chaos. I went up and said hi to him on my way out. Turned out that he was the son of the late Hormuz Irani, Mr Sarosh Irani. A CA by profession who has kept the family business alive.

Sarosh Irani at Vohuman with the legendary mound of butter

"I am a Bengali from Mumbai, I had lived in Iran as a kid and am married to a Parsi from the city," I said as we struck up a conversation.

"No problem, I am Irani married to a Gujarati," he replied with a smile. A man with an impish sense of humour and a sunny disposition as I soon discovered.

I asked him if he could speak to me for a minute or to. He called me to join him across the counter with a big smile and said, "you want to speak to me? No one has ever interviewed me before."

I complimented him on the great job that he had visibly done in terms of keeping his father's legacy alive starting with the generous servings on offer.

"I have absolutely nothing to do with this. I do not know anything about this business. I do not even know where the tea is bought. The staff are old timers. My father has trained them. I have done nothing," said Sarosh with a disarming sense of humility and honesty that is so rare in today's day and age.

The cheese omelette is Sarosh's contribution to the menu and he introduced this in 2000. I am sure that his father would have approved of the liberal use of cheese in it. They earlier served samosas and rotis etc but that went after they streamlined the menu.

We spent a couple of minutes more chatting together. I continued to insist that he has done a great job while he kept insisting that he had no role to play. We then shook hands, embraced and parted.

As I stepped out of Vohuman Cafe, I realised that I had made a new friend in Pune and had found a new reason to want to come back to the city. I could feel the old Mr Hormuz nodding in agreement from the skies up there, blessing us all.

Here's a fun fact, Sarosh is named after his grandfather who had migrated to India from Iran and thanks to whom, Vohuman Cafe was born in Pune when Hormuz Irani (who was born in India) made Pune his home and had set up his omelette stall 41 years back.

Footnote: Generation next?

With Rashmi, Khuzaan and chef Taha at Le Flamington

On our way out from Pune, we stopped at a place called Le Flamington. This was at their Salunke Vihar branch. A small and idyllic modern cafe run by another Parsi, Khuzaan Dalal, and his chef partner, Taha, who is CIA (Culinary Institute of America) graduate. My friend and my first boss from my market research days in Mumbai, Rashmi Varma, recommended it. She lives in Pune and is a regular at this outlet and joined K and me for lunch at Le Flamington and had come bearing a truck-load of food gifts. Another friend of mine from Pune, Radhika Dossa, is a big fan of their work too and wanted to take me to their original outlet on my last visit. She was thrilled to hear that I had made it to Le Flamington this time.

To me, La Flamington is a reflection of the aspirations of modern Pune, just as Vohuman was once was before it became a part of its city's heritage. Le Flamington would be the place for the students who flock Vohuman, to go to when they grew up, started working, saw more of the world and aspired to have international experiences at home. 

The rather Parisian omelette at Pune's La Flamington

The service that we experienced was warm and attentive and it is always so, Rashmi tells me. The vibe was cosy. I could imagine myself going there to work if it was located in Bandra where I stay. K was besotted by the 'Jimmy Johnson' omelette that she had and which was rendered soft like the omelettes that we had in Paris. Different from the more deep fried ones at Vohuman and which are more typical of Indian kitchens. I tried the hot chocolate (and they have shots too so one can have smaller portions) and I was really impressed by the quality of the dark chocolate used. 

Hot chocolate love at La Flamington

We tried a couple of desserts - the grey (flourless chocolate cake with activated charcoal jelly with smoked chocolate ganache) and the mini modern black forest (flourless chocolate cake, cherry gelee, cream, dark chocolate mousse) - where the technique on display was amazing. The quiche Lorraine (chicken bacon) was a bit runny and underdone inside, though the puff pastry was buttery and tugged at your heartstrings. K took a keto mocha cappuccino to go and both of us were hypnotised by the sheer of the intensity of the drink which we sipped on as we headed back to Mumbai. Oh, and Radhika recommends the sourdough too and you have to order that in advance. 

We could imagine hanging out at Le Flamington often if they were next door at Bandra.
The prices were a lot cheaper here of course than back home!

With that ended a morning which offered me a taste of the cafes of Pune, old and new. All within a space of four hours before we headed home. A day well spent in my books and I owe Jayesh, Dushyant and Rashmi for their recommendations and company for this. 

Thanks for all the love once again Pune, here's till the next time. 



Starbucks Stop on the way

Vohuman and Shree  Datta

 Dushyant and Jayesh at Vohuman

A video that we shot at Vohuman Cafe and where I got to speak to Sarosh too with Jayesh capturing that

My earlier posts on Pune:

Koregaon Park
Pune City
A little phone video showing our suite at the Sheraton Bund Garden.