Tracey MacLeod dines out at the Empire, where the menu runs from ant to zebra and a meal feels more like a reality game show

In a former career as a TV development producer, I worked on the idea that became the reality game show Survivor. Unlike my boss, I was convinced the show would never be made, so was happy to sit around in a comfy office, dreaming up fresh tortures for the poor contestants.

In a former career as a TV development producer, I worked on the idea that became the reality game show Survivor. Unlike my boss, I was convinced the show would never be made, so was happy to sit around in a comfy office, dreaming up fresh tortures for the poor contestants.

When the series finally made it to the screen, it was with mingled pride and shame that I watched some of its more sadistic moments, as when the exhausted contestants stood on logs in the sea for hours under a fierce sun (we'd assumed they'd jump off after an hour or so), or were forced to bite the heads off giant larvae.

Survivor, currently in its second series on ITV, is on my mind this week because once again I have inflicted bug-eating on unsuspecting innocents. This time, though, it wasn't in the rainforests of Borneo, but a shopping street in Bloomsbury.

Empire was set up by 21-year-old chef/ proprietor Iqbal Hussein at the beginning of the year to showcase his own eccentric version of fusion cuisine. The menu reads like a mickey-take dreamed up by an inept satirist. Most of the dishes are just weird-sounding – shark risotto with shiitake mushroom and mascarpone, for example, or rabbit with daal and red wine juice. Then there's a separate "unusual" menu, an attention-seeking selection offering deep-fried locust salad, crocodile-meat dumplings, kangaroo in cherry sauce, and ending with chocolate-coated scorpion in gold leaf.

Obviously, these transgressive dishes were crying out to be sampled, but neither of my guests was eager to leave the relative comfort zone of the regular menu. As our waiter returned yet again to try and take our order, we were grappling like Survivor contestants over who would be stuck with the "unusual" dishes. In the end they got off lightly, with a chicken kebab and pan-fried scallops respectively, while I found myself faced with a bowl of cobra snake risotto.

The risotto was actually surprisingly good, if you ignored the shavings of brown and chewy snake meat arranged on top of it. It was hard to make out whether snake has much taste of its own; this had been subjected to a powerful garlic marinade. But the risotto itself, a conventional affair involving wild mushrooms, had been cooked competently enough to raise expectations, particularly as the kebabs and scallops were also serviceable dishes.

But then we moved on to our main courses. There's an old tradition of making a wish every time you eat something new. And sure enough, we were soon wishing like mad – wishing we'd gone somewhere else.

Sheree's monkfish was supposed to come with foie gras and ginger sauce; in fact it had coconut sauce identical to that served with her scallops, though our waiter stubbornly tried to pretend otherwise. He had a nice line in feigned insouciance about the more unconventional ingredients, greeting our request for a side-order of rice with a casual: "What kind of rice? Jasmine or ant?"

It had to be ant, of course. The insects, an edible variety imported from Australia, were served on the side, in a glass petri-dish, and looked like the deposit you find down the back of the sofa, but with legs. Sheree started whimpering: "I can't eat ants, I can't eat ants," before forcing down a pinchful and groaning. (If she'd been a Survivor contestant, the audience would have earmarked her for early elimination.) I sampled them and found them desiccated and rustly, like Chinese seaweed. As a delicacy, they have no obvious value, but as a publicity gimmick, they are unsurpassable.

From the exotic menu, my flash-grilled zebra ('fraid so) had obviously led a long, hard life before finding its way into Empire's freezer. No way had it been flash-grilled – it was chewily dense and compacted, like overcooked steak, and was plonked in a sweet, red sludge billed as "tomato masala".

Tony was smug about what he thought was a safe choice, lamb with pesto rice. But the lamb was so fiercely spiced, it might just as well have been zebra, and the pesto rice was horrid. It was also the first pesto I've encountered which featured a genuine pest. As a small green insect made its way across Tony's plate, we knew we'd reached the end of Empire. But then, we were already eating ants voluntarily, so what were we going to complain about?

While my fellow competitors reacquainted themselves with home comforts, in the form of coffee and After Eights, I steeled myself for the final challenge – chocolate-covered scorpion, dusted with 24-carat gold leaf. "Crunchy" doesn't do justice to the texture of this item – it was like eating toe-nail parings dipped in caramel, though toe-nail pairings may well have broken down more quickly into something you could swallow.

On the plus side, Empire's dining room is pleasant, in a Moorish sort of way (more than can be said about the food), and the food is presented very prettily in delicate Japanese bowls. "I might buy some of this when they have the closing-down sale," whispered Sheree.

With a bottle of Verdiccio and a bottle of Tiger beer (mercifully containing no actual tiger) the bill came to £40 a head before service. It's hard to know who Empire is for, apart from as a particularly cruel venue for a reunion dinner for Survivor contestants. We shared the dining room with two couples, presumably trying to inject that certain spice into their relationship that only eating insects can do. Ultimately, though, the experience left us quietly exultant. We'd managed to eat our way from A to Z, from ants to zebra, and somehow, we'd survived.

Empire, 38 Lambs Conduit Street, London WC1 (020-7404 6835).

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