Pune has always been adventurous when it comes to food but it’s now home to innovative brewers, dedicated bakers and a chef making vinegars from scratch. Its dine-out and delivery scene is humming with activity. And much of it is competitively priced.
Chef Gayatri Desai started her restaurant Ground Up at Viman Nagar in 2019. She makes everything in her kitchen—from miso to sodas and vinegars. The fermentation and smoked food enthusiast has an eclectic menu, with dishes such as pork belly in coffee vinegar and soy, palash flower (flame of the forest) soda and amazake rice pudding. “She is vegetarian but her meats are exceptional,” says Nakul Bhonsle, director and founder of the craft beer company Great State Aleworks. Desai, 33, quit an advertising job in Mumbai at the age of 25, studied at the Northwest Culinary Academy in Vancouver, Canada, and worked with the microbrewery Doolally as an innovation chef before starting her own venture in her home city in Maharashtra. She collaborates with farmers and others growing interesting produce, such as the small-grained jhondali jirga rice that goes into her amazake pudding. “I create the menu around the produce. It was the goal from the beginning,” she says.
It is people like Desai—young, creative and passionate—who are changing the food scene in Pune. There’s Geeta Pathak of the bakery Dohiti, chef Abhishek Joshi of We Idliwale, baker Smita Sharan of The Good Butter, chef Brehadeesh Shimizu Kumar of the Japanese eatery Ginkgo and chef Niket Drego of The Daily Cut, which focuses on small-batch experimental cold cuts such as vindaloo chorizo from the East Indian community. That’s not all. The city is home to craft breweries such as Great State Aleworks, Yavasura, Kimaya Brewing Co., Doolally and Moonshine Meadery, believed to be Asia’s first meadery. Collaborative food pop-ups with brewers, chefs, bakers and cookbook authors add to the evolving dine-out scene.
“Pune has always been experimental when it comes to food. People here are open to trying something new,” notes Jayesh Paranjpe of Western Routes , which organises walking tours of the city. So, while vegetarian food and snacks like misal are deeply embedded in the food culture, non-vegetarian dishes from the interiors of the state and the Konkan region have gained popularity through restaurants such as Surve and Maratha Samrat.
The city is no stranger to icons: the Irani bakery Kayani, Chitale Bandhu Mithaiwale, and restaurants like Vaishali. The legendary German Bakery in Koregaon Park, opened in the mid-1990s by a local businessman, Dnyaneshwar Kharose, in partnership with a German, Klaus Woody Gutzeit, introduced residents to the finest German sourdough.
Pathak, founder of Dohiti, discovered Pune’s love for, and knowledge of, bread when she opened shop in July 2021. “People know good from bad. If my baker who does the croissants is on leave, people sense that something has changed,” she says.
Like Desai, she uses local ingredients wherever possible. Her cinnamon rolls have jaggery and ragi (finger millet) with a lemony glaze and she opts for kokum (Garcinia indica) instead of blueberry in cheesecakes. In eight months, she has earned loyal customers who bring back snack souvenirs and food tales from their travels. “I once had a customer walk in grieving a loved one’s passing and all she wanted was coffee and croissant. She shed a few tears, told me about the one who is gone and then she left,” says Pathak. Apart from her passion for croissants, it is relationships like these that Pathak cherishes.
“One of her loyal customers is a Frenchman who first tasted her croissants at my bar,”says Bhonsle. He had invited Pathak to bring baked treats for one of the opening nights of his bar, Great State Dive. The cosy informal rooftop space started in November as a taproom with a dining area that hosts pop-ups.
Last weekend, they had a pop-up brunch featuring Bohri-inspired dishes with home chef Husein Upletawala. In April, they will be roping in Mumbai’s famous café, Subko, and there are plans to collaborate with Drego for a special 9am breakfast pop-up featuring Bavarian Pork Weisswurst, or white sausages, that go perfectly with craft beers. Their audience, Bhonsle says, is always looking for something new and interesting.
Pop-ups, in fact, gained even greater popularity during the pandemic, with ventures like The Hedonist taking a shot at refining the food experience. Co-founder Prasad Thergaonkar, a former pilot, and food professional Rishi Bhog bring in young independent chefs who have earned their culinary stripes at award-winning restaurants like The Bombay Canteen or Michelin-star Noma in Copenhagen. Their changing multi-course menus with wine, priced at approximately ₹4,000 per head, are all about fine-dining. Pop-up from Pune have made way too Mumbai too. Few weeks ago, food and travel experience platform, The Soul Company, brought Ginkgo to Mumbai for a weekend. What makes them stand-out, he says, is their dedication to the craft of making ramens, sushis or rice cakes that look straight out of a Ghibli movie.
The city’s recipe for success seems to favour small restaurants, run by entrepreneurs who know their food, keep overheads low and price competitive, Muthanna points out.
At Ground Up, for instance, a complete meal, with appetisers, homemade fermented drinks, mains and desserts, will cost around ₹1,500. Desai is firm on keeping her food accessible as she continues to experiment. “If you only give people what they want,” she says, “they will never know what they are missing.”