Occidental restaurant serves bugs to raise money for DC Central Kitchen, combat hunger

Caitlin Phillips was savoring a burger in the sunshine of the patio at Occidental Grill & Seafood, a stately old restaurant across from the White House, when she paused and reached for a napkin.

“I have cricket stuck in my teeth,” she said, delicately easing the insect leg out before continuing with lunch.

While many lunching at the Occidental on Wednesday chose from the traditional menu — a steak salad, or duck confit flatbread, or a crab cake — those on the patio had walked into a pop-up eatery featuring bugs.

At the Pestaurant, as some called it, guests were snapping up grasshopper burgers, chocolate ant rounds, salt-and-vinegar crickets, roasted locusts. “This is really good,” Phillips said of her burger, a mix of turkey, ground grasshopper, spices and — for crunch — whole grasshoppers, bulgy eyes, knobby knees and all. “I put an extra one on as a garnish,” she said, lifting the sweet-potato bun to show. “See? He’s up there.”

What better way to combat hunger? Eat bugs.

A New York chef has created a dish for the extravagant palette - a gold leaf and caviar-enriched lobster roll that sells for $160. (Reuters)

The lunch raised about $6,000 for D.C. Central Kitchen, with a company donating $5 for anyone who tried an insect. The whole thing was brought to the people of Washington — and other cities in Australia and Europe — by an international business, Rentokil.

“I like that it was sponsored by a pest-control company,” said Nicole Gurley, laughing and tossing back a grasshopper leg. “That just makes it even weirder.”

(The bugs, a Rentokil spokesman assured when asked, were raised for human consumption. As in, they didn’t just clean out their traps Tuesday and fry up the victims.)

Some diners came for the cause. “There are a lot of food shortages in the world,” said Robert Osberger, who came from Cleveland Park but couldn’t persuade friends to join him. “This could be a good, high-protein alternative food source.”

Some came to the Pestaurant because they were curious.

And some were drawn by the price, a shining beacon in the midst of an expense-account town. “I’m an artist,” Phillips said. “I’ll always come out for free food.”

In the busy kitchen of the Occidental on Wednesday morning, chef Rodney Scruggs crushed half a lime onto shredded lettuce and glossy cricket, then sprinkled it with kosher salt. A bowl of pulverized grasshopper — dusty brown, like the inside of a vacuum-cleaner bag — sat alongside dishes of Aleppo pepper and za’atar. Crickets and grasshoppers take on the flavors around them, he said, but the grasshopper added an earthy quality to the meat, a sort of dried-mushroom flavor.

Insects could be the next hot trend in food, Scruggs said.

In many places around the world, they’re common sources of food. About 2,000 species are edible. Or edible to someone.

On the patio, Jessica Wilkinson, a 25-year-old working in international development, had set her grasshopper burger aside after taking a bite. “I didn’t know it had turkey in it,” she said.

She ate worms instead, and consoled her friend Victoria Reichers, who was told when she arrived that her shellfish allergy probably meant she shouldn’t try the insects. “I’m so hungry,” Reichers said, looking at the bugs on her friends’ plates. “It smells so good!”

It was almost 12:30: Time for the cricket-eating contest. Phillips’s friend David Dugard, 39, who walked over from his job at the Federal Communications Commission, pulled on a T-shirt that read, “I [heart] toxic waste,” and headed to a long table.

He wasn’t daunted. He grew up in Arlington County trying unusual foods at ethnic restaurants. His favorite candy flavor is durian, a pungent tropical fruit. “It’s like eating a crème brûlée out of a dirty sock dripping diesel fuel,” he said. “It smells terrible, it tastes wonderful.”

A woman high-fived everyone around her and whooped when they brought out the cups of crickets; others toasted one another, “Cheers!” One man grimaced. Katherine Eklund sat down only because it would raise $25 for D.C. Central Kitchen, where she works.

The taste was bland but the texture was a little hard to swallow — literally, she said; sometimes she would shudder while a not-quite-chewed chunk of exoskeleton went down.

Part of the way through, a severed leg went into her eye.

Some contestants tossed cups of cricket back like shots, then chewed frantically. Dugard had a grim, set look, teeth grinding methodically, jaws working, glasses slipping down his nose. Onlookers cheered; a man sweating with the effort lifted his arms, but too soon — his mouth was still full of insects.

Dugard raised a hand in quiet triumph and accepted a bottle of champagne as his prize.

“The burgers were wonderful,” he said afterward. “I’m sick of crickets for a little while, though.”

“Really?” Phillips said. “They didn’t bug me.”

He shot her a look. It was too soon for puns.

She picked a piece of leg off his neck and offered him water. “Thank you,” he said, gratefully; choking down crickets is tough and thirsty work.

He took a sip but then put it down. “This tastes really weird.”

Susan Svrluga is a reporter for the Washington Post, covering higher education for the Grade Point blog.
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