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Bug St. Bistro: Eatery prepares insect dinner to benefit butterfly house
‘BUG APPETIT’ | BURNS ST. BISTRO

Bug St. Bistro: Eatery prepares insect dinner to benefit butterfly house

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Once grilled and placed on a tortilla, the grasshopper has a pleasing crunch. Its exoskeleton, lightly toasted, blends well with avocado and cilantro, salsa fresca and cotija cheese.

As it should: Fried grasshoppers are a traditional dish in Oaxaca, Mexico, where they're consumed just like any other protein.

This particular chapulines taco, prepared by Burns St. Bistro's head chef Walker Hunter, is an ingenious way to raise awareness for the Missoula Butterfly House and Insectarium.

If the phrase "grasshopper taco" doesn't seize your attention, there's the other main course on the menu for their "Bug Appetit" dinner in mid-April: mealworm arancini – fried balls of risotto and mealworms – served with a chili Romesco sauce, greens, toasted hazelnuts and shaved fennel in a lemon vinaigrette.

And dessert? Saltine toffee cricket bark.

**

The idea for the dinner emerged last year. Glenn Marangelo, one of the founders and its part-time development director, was trying to think of ways to raise awareness about the Insectarium.

The Butterfly House opened in 2009 and the Insectarium in 2015, with a stated mission to "inspire an appreciation and understanding of insects and their relatives through educational programs and innovative science exhibits featuring live invertebrates."

It hosts a variety of programs for children (educational camps, field trips) and adults ("bugs and brews" lectures) and some that appeal to all ages (live predator feedings every Friday).

It's a small organization, Marangelo said, so it wants to find something outside of the big banquets that other groups in town put on.

After reading more and more articles about entomophagy, the consumption of insects, it occurred to him that a bug dinner might draw the attention of Missoula residents. After all, eating bugs is a common practice around the world and throughout human history.

The first place he thought of was Burns St. Bistro, the Westside restaurant known for its adventurous menu, where the specials are the bulk of the menu.

Hunter and his co-owners opened the eatery five years ago, and from the beginning their unusual entrees were how they made their name, he said. They couldn't afford advertising, so they posted their unique menu on Facebook to get people through the door.

"We weren't a tenderloin establishment," Hunter said. They cooked affordable, offcuts of meat that other restaurants normally don't, such as beef tongue, liver, kidneys or goat neck.

The concept worked: He recalls that within a few months, he prepared a "pig's head trio" for lunch. "It was a braised cheek, fried brain and smoked snout on toast. I think I made 15 orders and sold out within an hour and a half. People came down just to try that," he said. "We've always let that be our guiding force as we've grown: Never forget the offal."

The ever-changing menu frequently packs the large dining room, and the eatery has been featured on The Food Network.

***

For "Bug Appetit," Hunter started by looking at affordable, food-grade insects. It's a growing trend, he said, but they're not cheap. Grasshoppers, crickets and mealworms fell into the right price range.

The chapulines taco is Oaxacan-style, with a cricket-flour tortilla made by head baker Jason McMackin.

"We wanted to do one dish that represented a fairly typical use of what we consider an atypical ingredient," Hunter said.

The mealworm arancini was a Burns St. innovation designed to make the more outre ingredient palatable.

"The idea was to put it in with a risotto ball. Aesthetically, it could be anything. We've used risotto balls to emulate eggs here. Arancini and egg had three things on the plate. One is a hard-boiled egg and two are arancini balls and you don't know which is which," he said.

He said the worms add "another textural component" with an earthy, nutty flavor reminiscent of some Oregon truffles he sampled recently.

"I was very pleasantly surprised by what adding the mealworms to the risotto actually did. I felt that it improved the dish," he said.

It's a classic risotto, with the mealworms marinated in a black-olive tapenade and lightly grilled to get a small crust. If you ate one with a blindfold on, you'd likely never guess the secret ingredient.

Entomophagy as a whole is catching on in the United States. Earlier this year, a food-grade cricket farm called Cowboy Cricket Farms opened outside of Bozeman. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal ran a feature on millennial entomophagy entrepreneurs on its front page.

They're a healthy source of protein, vitamins, fats and essential minerals, Marangelo said. They're also an efficient, environmentally sustainable source of protein.

The stretch for Americans is getting them to eat it.

Marangelo, who enjoyed his samples of the menu, said it's an interesting contradiction. Seafood such as lobster and oysters are delicacies, but they're not far removed from the arthropods they display at the Insectarium.

"They're basically the insects of the sea and the rivers and the lakes," he said.

So far, their bid for attention has worked. The "Bug Appetit" dinner isn't until April 21, but there's only 13 or 14 seats left.

If there's enough interest, they might have another one in the fall. 

He recently read an entomophagy article that noted that sushi was a novelty in the United States in the 1980s.

Maybe someday, he said, people won't get creeped out by a bug. Maybe they'll salivate.

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