"I think the worms are a little overcooked," one of my tablemates announces with the authority of a true entomophagist. We're seated at a long, communal table along with 40 other diners at the mysterious Charlie's Burgers' latest anti-restaurant experiment: a 10-course dinner featuring insects.
Eating worms brings new meaning to underground dining.
Charlie's Burgers is the guerrilla dinner party that features top chefs cooking in unusual venues. As with all its events, a certain cloak-and-dagger mystery surrounds the evening. I am told to arrive at a location just prior to dinner where I will find one of Mr. Burgers' associates. He is waiting with a box of stinkbug-garnished chocolate cupcakes that he offers along with an envelope in which to "donate" $155 for the dinner, complete with wine pairings, and directions to the event locale a block away. (Despite its unappetizing name, the stinkbug adds only a bit of crunchiness and not a distinct flavour.)
Arriving at the venue, I find a diverse crowd gathered. Wine is offered along with a canapé, a potato chip with crème fraîche, roasted crickets and grasshoppers seasoned with sumac, chili powder and lime. It's crunchy and creamy with a taste not unlike onion dip.
I ask Jeff Stewart - one of the chefs, along with Matt Binkley, responsible for tonight's menu - what inspired the dinner. "I see cooking with insects as the ultimate culinary challenge," he says. "The concept stems from the same idea as you might find at the Black Hoof or Charlie Trotter's where they are trying to utilize off cuts like jowls and tripe, but there's also a sustainability component to what I'm doing. When you look at how much energy is needed to raise cattle or poultry or sheep, it's enormous, while the amount used to raise insects is minuscule. That's appealing to me and, of course, that they're obviously pesticide free."
Pesticide free, perhaps, but I'm more concerned with flavour. I want to be blown away by bugs.
Roasted forest nymphs
Our amuse-bouche arrives in a little teardrop-shaped serving vessel. It contains a tempura abalone mushroom on top of a fresh shiso leaf with homemade ricotta, pickled wild leeks, local soy sauce and a few roasted forest nymphs (a.k.a. juvenile grasshoppers). As delicious as the dish is - warm with a bright herbaceousness and creamy with a lively acidity - the nymphs add little to the flavour, acting mostly as a complement to the crunchiness of the fried mushroom. Hoping for a little more bugginess in the next course.
Ancient Chinese scorpion soup
Mr. Stewart wanders by with a live emperor scorpion on his hand. The soup's delicious broth is sweet with carrots and Chinese plums, but I'm having a hard time discerning the scorpion in this 1,000-year-old recipe. A close inspection reveals a few shards of carapace and there are bits of something that remind me of soft portobello mushroom gills, which I'm told are in fact scorpion. They taste slightly earthy with a subtle meatiness like pancetta.
Queen ant Thai salad
Most of the critters cooked tonight were farmed in Thailand where, as in China (the other country leading the world in bug farming), such creatures are in some demand. What would be recognizable to most people as a som tam salad (green mango, papaya, shrimp, Thai basil, mint and cilantro in a lime, chili and lemongrass vinaigrette) has been bugged out with the addition of a whole queen ant sitting on a little kaffir lime leaf-scented cracker. Queen ants, as any Grade 5 biology student can tell you, are a rare delicacy as there's only one for each colony. The good queen's sacrifice was not in vain, but her particular flavour is lost in the general sweet, spicy goodness of the salad. She was a bit crunchy, though.
The Charlie "Bugger" micro chickpea and bean burger
Mr. Binkley informs us that, "there are 15 crickets per burger for each of you." It tastes like a mild falafel while the accompanying fries are enhanced by a drag through a slick of water-beetle aioli. For me, the most interesting thing on the plate is a little dollop of nam prik, the incendiary Thai chili paste. This one is enlivened by water beetles. It smells like a body and tastes like a funky pineapple. I don't exactly love it, but it's like nothing I've ever tasted before.
Risotto con quattro vermi
Risotto, the traditional Italian rice dish, is usually a crowd pleaser, but most of us have been dreading this all night. The kitchen has named the course after the four kinds of worms in it: wax, meal, super and butter. To make it more palatable, sommelier Jamie Drummond pours glasses of a lovely 2006 Gaja Ca Marcanda Promis. As pretty as the dish looks in its shapely bowl, there's no denying that those beige, variegated creatures on top are worms. Several dishes go back untouched, and the renowned food maven sitting next to me has a strong, visceral reaction that almost becomes messy. The meal worms, because of their sheer bulk and general worminess, are a particular challenge. They have a sort of gamey pea flavour, like a fresh pea crossed with elk liver. Not bad, but not something I'll likely be craving any time soon. The risotto itself was excellent.
Rhinoceros beetle juice sorbet
This well-deserved palate cleanser is the one dish that really gave me pause. The gelatinous, muddy-looking slop beneath the bright yellow sorbet appeared distinctly unappetizing. But it mostly tastes of lemons.
Meal worms and critter crackers
The evening winds down with a vertical tasting of Mimolette, a prized French cow's milk cheese with a distinctive grey rind that develops when the cheese is introduced to mites, which give it its sharp, distinctly nutty flavour. The cheese is followed by a miniature candied apple that, instead of sprinkles, is rolled in meal worms. At this point, the worms didn't bother me as much as the excessively thick caramel coating.
At the end of the meal, in what has to be one of the cleverest mignardise of all time, the kitchen presents a plate of homemade gummi worms on a bed of crushed up Oreo cookie "earth." It is a sweet, simple ending to a meal no one there will soon forget. And for the record, I agree, the worms were overcooked. Thank God.
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