One of these days, you may be eating maguey worms and ant larvae at Rivera and/or Playa. But no caterpillars.
Before you gag and go for a hamburger, listen to chef John Sedlar, chef-owner of both restaurants. "Nutritionists are recommending reducing beef consumption because of its effect on the planet," he says. What to eat instead? Insects, Sedlar suggests. "They're very high in protein. Some are very delicious."
He's so convinced we'll love these earthy things that he went to Mexico recently to get at them first hand. Not by snacking on chapulines (grasshoppers) in a bar or by licking sal de gusano (worm salt) from the rim of a cocktail glass. That wouldn't be anything new anyway. The Donaji cocktail at Rivera is rimmed with Mexican fleur de sel and chopped chapulines.
Joining chef pal Patricia Quintana from Mexico City, Sedlar went straight to the field--a rough stretch of land miles from anywhere in the state of San Luis Potosí. Climbing through barbed wire, camera in hand, he headed for a stand of wild maguey.
A field hand hacked through spiky pencas (leaves) to get at the thick parts where the worms lurk. And, what luck, there was a worm hole. As Sedlar focused, its gooey inhabitant oozed forth to pose.
That worm escaped, but those destined for Sedlar's kitchens may wind up crisped with butter or deep fried, then sprinkled over fresh tortillas spread with avocado. Yum.
The ant larvae--escamoles--come from dried, woody sections of maguey where the ants make their nests. Sedlar saw plenty of black ants streaming over the base of a maguey. but no larvae. It was too late in the day to harvest them.
No matter, he ate his fill of escamoles at a dinner in the nearby town of Salinas de Hidalgo. At a restaurant in Mexico City, he watched them cooked tableside. "They look like caviar," he said.
If Sedlar can import escamoles, he might copy that tableside presentation. Such a rare ingredient deserves a little drama, after all. This won't happen at Playa, though. "The aisles are too narrow for tableside," he said. So look for them at Rivera.
Sauteed with butter, onion, cilantro and epazote, escamoles are better than you might think. If no one said what they were, you might assume that you were eating fat rice grains, or tiny pasta.
What you will never get at Rivera or Playa is caterpillars. They're "too pungent," Sedlar said. "They have a strong taste, like offal, and a very hard shell."
When you bite into a caterpillar, it "squirts out," he said, wincing. "That's not what you want to have at a romantic dinner--or at dinner with the boss."