I still remember when I first decided that I would go to Vienna this year. It was the moment that Air India announced its (sadly, not daily) flight to Vienna from Delhi at introductory prices that were, quite frankly, almost ridiculous – though admittedly, all club-class fares from (and within) India are now such a joke that it came as no surprise to discover that you could fly from Delhi to Vienna at only a little more than the Delhi-Bangalore fare and less than half the Delhi-London fare.
I’d been to Vienna once before, nearly a decade ago, so I knew it was easily the most beautiful city in Europe and quite possibly the most beautiful city in the world. Plus, it had an additional advantage. Despite the Air India flight, it was the one European tourist destination that was not overrun by Indians in June. So at least, going to Vienna would feel like a holiday – not an extension of Delhi socialising.
Scientifically, almost cunningly, I scoured the net and made calls looking for hotel deals. The last time around I’d stayed at the Imperial (very nice old-world charm) and the Meridien (rubbish hotel trying desperately to be hip), so I looked for the world-famous Sacher, which I had been too poor to afford a decade ago.
Then, I discovered that a Park Hyatt had opened in Vienna two years ago and the decision was made; I’ve rarely gone wrong with a Park Hyatt anywhere in the world. (Oh okay: The one in Goa is not so wonderful!)
Then, just as I was dreaming of Wiener Schnitzel and Sacher Torte, disaster struck. I was felled by a crippling pain in my left leg. I’m not a fan of doctors, so I waited a couple of days before consulting a fancy guy in my neighbourhood who gave me medicines that did no good at all. Then, when it had got so bad that I was crying out in pain at night in my bed and could not even put my shorts on, I listened to my friend, Kapil Chopra, and went off to see Dr Dhananjay Gupta and Dr Rahul Kaul at the Vasant Kunj Fortis.
Both said I had sciatica, caused when a vertebra is displaced enough to press on a nerve in the lower back, a diagnosis confirmed by my old friend, Dr Harsh Mahajan, who did an MRI. Everyone agreed that it would take a couple of weeks for me to able to get out of bed or walk properly and that daily doses of heavy painkillers were required.
I have a (perhaps slightly childishly defiant) problem with doctors telling me what to do, so I refused to be entirely bedridden. I did the last two Rude Foods, though it was agony and even went into the studio (after a painkilling injection) to shoot an episode of Virtuosity, my TV show.
But the doctors were speechless when I announced that I saw no reason to cancel my trip to Vienna. The hotel was booked, the restaurant reservations had been made and I was sure that Air India would look after me on my travels. My wife got very angry indeed, but I asked her to look at the brighter side: She was coming along so she could look after me. (Some brighter side!)
And so I got Dr Kaul to administer a steroid injection in my spine. The next day, I bought a stick, stumbled into the departure lounge at the IGI and slid into the wheelchair that Air India had provided. The Dreamliner has a reclining seat, so I lay back for eight hours while an exceptional crew looked after me. They were so good that I asked for their names and employee numbers: Sanjay Johar (CCIC-35417), Maitreyee Narasimhan (H-1-33091) and Dayanada Joshi (A-1-35727).
At Vienna, Air India had a guy with an electric wheelchair waiting for me at the gate and the Park Hyatt sent a car. It was no trouble at all. (Though it still hurt to sit in the car.)
I don’t know if it was the passage of time or Vienna that did it, but even though I spent the entire journey using a stick and devouring painkillers, I managed to enjoy an almost perfect holiday. My leg healed enough for me to be able to enjoy long restaurant meals, to walk in the rose gardens of the Imperial Palace and to enjoy the refined and discreet luxury that the Park Hyatt has brought to Vienna over the last two years.
As for Vienna, it was even more stunning than I remembered: truly the world’s most beautiful city, both grand and romantic at the same time. And though it is a little old fashioned, the gastronomic experiences were wonderful.
I went to Steirereck, the famous restaurant, which is number nine on the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and of course it was terrific, every bit as good as Randeep Bajaj of Amour Bistro and Townhall had told me it would be. The food was wonderful, so was the location (in the middle of a park) and the design was fresh and thoughtful.
But was it the ninth best restaurant in the world? Who knows? It was certainly a lot worse than Narisawa in Tokyo which is number eight on the same list and not as good as Bangkok’s Gaggan.
I had a hugely enjoyable meal at the stunning Bank Brassiere at the Park Hyatt. The hotel used to be a bank and this was the cashier’s hall, so it looked like one of those grand, huge rooms that Corbin & King find in London and try to convert into Viennese restaurants. Except that we were actually in Vienna, and the food was a lot better than Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, for all their genius, have ever managed – the marrow dish alone was up there with Fergus Henderson. Afterwards I met Alexander Hoffmann, the hotel’s director of F&B, a man who is so passionate about food that it was easy to see why the restaurant was so amazing.
I ate well in the al fresco surroundings of the Albertina museum at Do & Co, whose original branch had so impressed me a decade ago. I was less impressed with Restaurant Max Bauer (one Michelin star), a cosy, old-style Vienna restaurant, where the food should really have been better than it was.
One of Austria’s bright young chefs is Konstantin Filippou (one Michelin star) and I went to his quiet, austere restaurant, where the chefs all wore silly hats that made them seem like dervishes. The first few courses – all fish – were amazing but it went downhill from there and the desserts were actually pretty bad.
The other great talent is Silvio Nickol, a German who came to Vienna with two stars, which he has retained at his gastronomic restaurant at the Palais Coburg residential hotel. I went for dinner with reduced expectations but was completely blown away.
Nickol, whose kitchen I visited after dinner, is a dour, unsmiling, tall fellow, but his food beats the hell not only out of Steirerecke but also of many of the great Paris three-star restaurants. The restaurant has one of the world’s great wine lists and exceptional front-of-the-house service. If there is any justice in the world, you will be hearing more about Nickol.
And then, finally, I went back to the Sacher to have the famous dish it created – the Sacher Torte. There are many imitators, but there is only one Sacher and one real Sacher Torte. Delicious!
Eventually, it was time to say goodbye to the refined luxury of the Park Hyatt, to grab my stick and to ease into a Dreamliner seat once again.
The doctors were astounded that I had managed, my wife was visibly relieved and as the plane soared over Vienna, I hummed the Ultravox song.
“A voice reaching out in a piercing cry.
It stays with you until the feeling has gone ...
From HT Brunch, July 3, 2016
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch