Pune’s culinary scene is fast evolving and the latest entrant to its buzzing F&B space is definitely worth adding to your must-eat-at list.
Growing up in India in the 1980s, I had my fill of Chinese restaurants. It was the one ‘exotic’ cuisine that constituted family dinners outside home. Italian hadn’t quite caught everyone’s fancy, Mumbai Mexican outside a five-star meant cheesy nachos at New Yorker’s, and sushi, what was that? But thanks to family-run restaurants such as Nanking (and later, Ling’s Pavilion) in Mumbai and thriving China towns in places like Kolkata, there was always plenty of good quality Chinese to be had in India. So much so, that many of us had even tired of it.
Cut to the last decade or so, when many Chinese restaurants, barring just a few, have morphed into multi-cuisine or pan-Asian establishments, where the emphasis is no longer on the delicacy of the dimsum or the integrity of the noodle.
Which is why it was exciting to visit Tao-Fu, a stylish new restaurant in the JW Marriott Pune just a week before its official opening to explore its rather extensive and bang-on brilliant menu, which exhibits a strong respect for heritage and craft.
The restaurant, high-ceilinged and spacious, is spread over 6727 sq feet and can seat 134 guests. It has a large open kitchen, a dedicated hot pot room, a plush Private Dining Room, several sheltered nooks that allow you your own space, as well as a buzzing indoor and outdoor bar area that invites you to mingle.
A Sichuan kind of love
Chef Fu Lei, who heads this kitchen, has been at the forefront of Chinese cuisine in India for more than a decade and is well acquainted with the Indian palate. After working as Sous Chef at The China Kitchen at Delhi’s Hyatt Regency, noted the scope for spicy Sichuan cuisine in India.
The Guangdong boy went to Shanghai to pursue advanced studies in Sichuan cooking and work at Park Hyatt, Beijing as the Head Chef for Sichuan cuisine. He later cooked alongside renowned chef Jack Aw Yong, the global godfather of Chinese cuisine, before coming back to India to launch the much-acclaimed Shang Palace at the Shangri-La in Delhi.
After all this time spent in India, he has observed the Indian predilection for spices and pickles, a palate that he feels will be well served at Tao-Fu. Sous Chef Anan Sunder Charan, who has travelled with Chef Fu Lei across several roles, helps to translate his Mandarin for us, “One of the many unique things at Tao-Fu is the fact that Chef has dipped into his mom’s traditional recipes to present traditional Chinese dishes, which involve pickling and curing of ingredients.” These recipes, which include curing and brining processes, are accompanied by stories and warm family memories, he explains.
With a name that means ‘unity’ and ‘immortality’ in Mandarin, Tao-Fu is clearly all about deep connection with people and the past, even as it is very much a trendy restaurant of the times.
Bringing Chinese to Indians
This may be a great premise, but there’s certainly no shortcut to success. “The journey from our existing vegetarian Indian restaurant to developing Tao-Fu’s traditional yet locally acceptable Chinese menu involved the core culinary team sampling Chef Fu Lei’s creations for three to four months. I put on 10 kilos in the process!” exclaims JW Marriott Pune’s Executive Chef Anirban Dasgupta.
Although we in India may pride ourselves on our fireproof palates, Chef admits that they have toned down the heat by reducing the quantity of Sichuan peppers used in several dishes. “The Sichuan pepper is very pungent and numbs your tongue in a very different way from Indian chillies,” he laughs, as we discuss their Scoville scale scores and other fiery topics.
After some excellent soups, we sample the poached chicken salad, a marinated and cured dish served on ice. Chef Fu Lei confides, “Whenever we go back home, moms make this salad for us.” I think, perhaps, that it needs to be seen through the prism of love and nostalgia for it to be truly appreciated.
As the staff at Tao-Fu explains, it’s best not to dunk everything in chilli oil as we’re wont to do. “We’ve stuck true to what’s authentic. Some dishes are very subtle, but that’s what they’re supposed to be. It’s flavour above everything,” says Chef. It holds true for the cool and light black fungus salad, which is delightful with its red chilli and soy garlic dressing.
I also get his ‘hero-the-ingredient’ approach when I try the steamed fish, a 180 gm sea bass filet imported from the Australian Atlantic. It’s a wonderful adaptation of the whole sea bass that Chef’s mom would cure in sliced chillies overnight and serve for a festive Sunday lunch. The freshness of the perfectly flaking fish is imbued with just the right amount of piquancy to make the tastebuds tingle. All he has done to adapt it to Pune’s palate is used a filet instead of the whole fish, as he has observed that Indian diners prefer eating fish without bones in a restaurant.
The seafood Sichuan broth, traditionally made from all the seasonal seafood available locally, is another favourite from his childhood memories from coastal southern China, which he brings to the Tao-Fu table. The ‘ants climbing on tree’ is also a Sichuan classic dish of glass noodles and minced meat that is said to resemble the ambitious critters. In Tao-Fu, you have glistening sweet potato noodles with a hint of heat, and the choice of minced morel mushrooms, chicken, or pork.
Sichuan is not the only province he has drawn from. There are milder preparations as well, especially garlic-tossed meat or vegetables from the northern regions of Harbin or Yaolin, where the locals prefer a less spicy diet. In fact, says Chef, “The menu is curated in a very balanced manner. For example, a black pepper sauce is used in the smoked duck steamed with garlic and asparagus, and there are other dishes made with oyster sauce and black bean sauce too.”
We dig into a spectacular Peking duck, barbecued proper Beijing street-shop style, the melt-in-your-mouth morsels to be eaten wrapped with pancakes, cucumber, and scallion, with garlic and hoisin sauce. And then there are Beijing chicken-and-prawn dimsum poached and packed with their characteristic light soy flavouring.
Of the 23 types of dimsum on offer at Tao-Fu, several of the most flavourful are from his home region of Guangdong — especially the Cantonese shiumai, and a silky cheung fun with a touch of the crispy. And then there are the Shanghai soup-filled steamed dumplings known as xiaolongbao, which I’ve been a fan of ever since I first slurped them up in Melbourne’s Chinatown. There’s as much an art to eating these as there is to making them, though I’ll admit I haven’t mastered either! But it’s a fun exercise in stuffing one’s face with something hot, juicy, and downright delicious, and I would encourage you to order a portion for yourself while you’re here.
The team quickly dispels the commonly held myth that dimsum is limited to just steamed or poached delicacies, by bringing forth some extremely moreish baked bites. The vegetarian filling of lotus root and mozzarella cheese with a five spice mix redolent of star anise, and the non-veg one of barbecued New Zealand lamb are encased in the most exquisite, layered puff pastry.
The meal is replete with Chinese folk tales narrated by the enthusiastic team. The drama of breaking through the salt crust of the salt-baked chicken, pickled mustard stem and mushroom, comes with a tale of a thief who chanced upon this recipe for the most succulent chicken by accident. There are many such and I won’t add spoilers to your dining experience by telling you more.
The hot pot room has a vast buffet of ingredients that you can pick from to add to your personalised shabu shabu-style dish. I didn’t try this yet but will certainly go back on a chilly winter day to get my fill of this comfort food that isn’t easily available in most Indian restaurants. For now, I’m very happy with my steaming hot truffle fried rice and succulent salt-baked chicken.
Traditional inspiration, contemporary rendition
The interiors tells their own story of individuality. Unlike the dingy, old-school Chinese restaurants, this high-ceilinged space is all about roominess, light, and a contemporary vibe even as it channels the wooden lattice screens and blue-and-white vases that are familiar China tropes. Some elements of the design, such as lanterns resembling dimsum baskets, and gold chains suspended from the ceiling, are a modern take on the traditional.
This approach is reflected in the bar offerings and desserts, which, although the only parts of Tao-Fu that are not 100 per cent Chinese, are still oriented in the Orient, to some extent. For example, the Bo Hai Black Forest uses the special Bo hai cherries usually grown in temple gardens, which are bigger, sweeter, and darker in colour. The hotel flies them in from China twice a week just for this tantalising dessert, which features a cherry-shaped mould, filled with black forest pastry and fresh cherries, sinful chocolate mousse, and decadent gold leaf. Their delicately flavoured ice-cream, handmade in the hotel itself, is creamy and some flavours, like the avocado-tender coconut that we try, are vegan as well.
Zodiac in your glass?
The cocktail menu is as nuanced, staying on trend with milk-washed or barrel-aged drinks but without boring you with a thousand details of their process and provenance. They let you ease into a good mood with a gorgeous red, black, and gold astrological wheel created on the iPad that allows you to pick a drink based on which sign of the Chinese zodiac you belong to, tailoring specific ingredients and tastes to your personality.
Mine turns out to be the fragrant Moon Rabbit (lychee, jasmine-infused Gin, Champagne Rosé) known to create the elixir of life for the moon goddess. Each of the Zodiac cocktails is served with a coaster bearing a picture of the related animal and make for a fun element in your bar chatter or sit-down meal, keeping it close to Chinese culture without being gimmicky.
I am delighted that they have identified the way the wind is blowing and created an entire menu dedicated to creations with Campari and Aperol. Old Friend, a bright mix of Campari, elderflower cordial, grapefruit juice, and the Italian bubbly called Prosecco, certainly has the potency and potential to become my new brunch BFF on every daytime visit to Tao-Fu.
There’s also a Tea cocktail menu with heft, which brings you oolong and earl grey in surprising juxtapositions. I’d recommend the dramatic Flaming Ice Tea (gin, absinthe, hibiscus, honey, and lemon juice), or the Kumquat (bourbon whiskey, oolong tea, honey, kumquat, sweet vermouth, and lemon juice).
Head mixologist Mayank Srivastava explains how a lot of attention has gone into selecting the glassware, creating an ice programme, and putting together a wine list from around the world, as he gets in action behind the cheery inside-outside bar that is surely going to be a hub for high rollers come winter.
In fact, after sampling their sumptuous spread, I’m confident that even somebody who doesn’t quite fancy oriental cuisine to start with, will find Tao-Fu a palate-changing experience. And go back for more in any season for any reason, just as I will.
Overall rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Max: 5 stars)
Food: 9.5/10 | Drinks: 10/10 | Service: 9.5/10 | Décor: 9.5/10 | Vibe: 10/10
Timing: Lunch between 12.30 pm and 3.30 pm and dinner between 6.30 pm and midnight | Address: Senapati Bapat Road, Pune 411053 | Contact: +912066832278/+9189566261892.