Ask 50 Austrians how to make a proper wiener schnitzel and you'll get 50 different responses and at least one fight. But for all the vehemently argued variables — whether to use lard or oil, what kind of bread makes the best crumbs, should it be dipped in milk, eggs, or both, etc — there is one constant. It is always, necessarily, made of meat, usually veal cutlet and occasionally pork.
That's why the sturgeon schnitzel on the menu of that bastion of Austro-Hungarian tradition, Caf des Artistes, has always seemed more than just heretical. It seems as improbable as veal caviar.
I probably wouldn't have gotten around to trying it but for the arrival of a new chef. Having heard that Ari Nieminen had been revitalizing the old classics at this venerable, grande dame of a restaurant since he arrived six months ago, I thought I'd put his schnitzel variation to the test. Could it even begin to compare to the meatier original?
In a word, yes. With its toothsome texture and buttery, almost neutral flavor, sturgeon isn't the least bit fishy. It could fool you into thinking you're eating the silkiest, whitest, milk-fed veal imaginable. But then, as it melts on the tongue leaving a faint saline trail, you'd realize that you're not. And unlike veal, which can, on occasion, take on the texture of brand new Spaulding, sturgeon stays perfectly moist and soft, making the contrast between the crisp crust and the flesh all the more pronounced. It may not be better than the classic veal, but it's certainly close.
The sturgeon schnitzel was, in fact, one of the first recipes Mr. Nieminen overhauled. A native of Finland, he was reared on the fish, and as the chef at Firebird, a Russian restaurant, he cooked it often. In this recipe he replaces regular breadcrumbs with finely group panko (Japanese breadcrumbs), then pan-fries it instead of deep-frying. It took four months of experimenting to get the recipe just right—good enough to satisfy both his love of the fish, and George Lang's, the Buda-Pest-born restaurant proprietor, love of schnitzel.
In the process he hit upon a dish that's a success in every way but one. According to those who know such things, the test for a perfect schnitzel is whether you can sit on it without it leaving a grease stain on the seat of your pants. Although I didn't try it out, I imagine sturgeon schnitzel would squash under impact. But that's okay. I'd rather eat it anyway.