Diet of Worms

updated 05/31/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/31/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

DINER: WAITER, THERE'S A WORM IN MY chimichanga.

Waiter: I'm sorry, sir, there are supposed to be 20 of them.

Yes, it has come to this. In downtown Washington, at the aptly named Insect Club, they are serving things that 4-year-olds try to feed their 2-year-old brothers when their parents aren't watching. Among the dishes to tempt taste buds at the restaurant-nightclub, open since last September, are mealworms Rockefeller and grilled cricket polenta.

The seven buggy items—which are on the house and just a small part of the eatery's New American menu—are a culinary extension of the club's decorative theme. A 14-foot sheet-metal dragonfly clings to the outside wall; large praying mantises guard the door; a 50-foot caterpillar hangs from the ceiling. "But we didn't want to just serve novelty items like chocolate-covered ants," says Howard Zechiel, 27, one of the owners. "We wanted to do it properly."

So chef Mark Nevin, 27, began to experiment. He ruled out such readily available but inedible critters as termites and cockroaches and settled on crickets and mealworms, which the club buys from a California worm wholesaler. "Once you get past your squeamishness, it's as tasty as anything else—and a lot better for you," says Zechiel. "They're extremely high in protein and have almost no fat." That's nice, but just how do they taste? "Dry roasted crickets have a nutty, smoky flavor," says Nevin. "You just take them out of the oven and pop them in your mouth." As for mealworms, he says, "The darker the roast, the richer the flavor—just like coffee."

But even a regular like Stephanie Abbajay, 27, who thinks bug food is the bee's knees, has to draw the line—in her case at Nevin's Jell-O concoction. "Imagine lime-green Jell-O with three little mealworms in it," she says. "It's visually stunning, but I just can't do it."

There's worse in store, though, because Zechiel has big plans. "We'll continue to experiment," he says. "We'd like to get some of the enormous bugs they eat in Africa and Australia—the stuff you can't find in your backyard."

Tarantula tart, anyone?

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