The restaurant is not spotless, but cleaner than its Milton Road branch. Its colourful and cosy interior create a comforting and welcoming atmosphere (the almost equally ubiquitous Kentucky chain has to its own misfortune chosen a predominantly blue scheme, which is chilly and unappetising). Although the restaurant is oddly empty for the time of evening (perhaps due to the downturn while people recover between bouts of State of Origin), the staff are friendly and helpful and when asked whether I would like a meal, I change my initial plans and say yes. This prompts me to muse on what makes a meal a meal, but that may be left for another time.
Service is prompt. Although I take my own drink and side to the table, the waitstaff deliver the burger within minutes. The orange juice is somewhat too sweet and warm, the insipidity of a recent refill, but it is consistent with previous experiences. The fries are unfortunately somewhat limp. Though acceptable and even surpassing other restaurants’ forays into this field, they are not the slender threads of saffron crispness that I am fond of and have come to expect, and I can enjoy them only as counterpoints to that memory, as symbols of potential.
But it is the centrepiece of the meal that must command attention, for it is the newest offering of this venerable establishment – veritably debutante – and like the mayfly, short-lived. In a fortnight it will be gone, and I confess I am surprised that curious gourmands have not beaten a path to the automatic doors and fluorescent-lit cashier to savour it on this, its opening night.
Grandly christened “The McEurope” (in a coy reference to recent accusations of the owner’s cultural imperialist tendencies), it is proudly presented in a themed wrapping – a cheap gimmick perhaps, but one which does not antagonise by being difficult to negotiate. It is hinged on ancient principles and, indeed, may be considered a nod to the paper wrappings used to steam foods in many cuisines and increasingly popular in fusion styles, a nice nod to the internationality of the event it is created to honour. Inside, the burger rests in a cushioning of shredded lettuce.
I cannot pretend to justify the title of “The McEurope” except to the extent that America itself may be held up as the defining characteristic of “The West”. Those influences not native to the common or garden burger seem to be drawn primarily from the Mediterranean region and what are popularly considered to be the keynote flavours of Italy. The signature meat is chicken, crisply crumbed and fried, but this is topped with napolitana sauce and parmesan. Pleasingly, the parmesan is shaved, not shredded or powdered, though it lacks some of the piquancy of true and truly fresh parmesan. The chef has chosen a stereotypical napolitana sauce, perhaps to avoid detracting from the desired impression with flights of culinary fancy. It is, perhaps, a little too stereotypical however, as it is less reminiscent of Italia than of bottled supermarket sauces.
The lettuce, I confess, puzzles me, particularly in such a “limited edition” dish as this where, untrammelled by the restrictions inherent in dishes which form the backbone of the menu (consistent and sustainable), I might have thought the chef would risk using the somewhat more diner-friendly leaf lettuce. I do not think it would have made the dish too divergent from the balance of the menu. Oddly, the lettuce was not mentioned on the menu itself. Ordinarily this would not surprise me, but as all the other ingredients were listed, it seems this too should have been included, for although frequently included in burgers lettuce is arguably not essential to their make-up in the way bread is.
Ultimately, the dish doesn’t quite gel for me. The individual ingredients – perhaps further hampered by the sheer quantity of shredded iceberg lettuce – never become a single “McEurope” but remain isolated in flavour, as listed on the menu, an ensemble performance of capable and solid (if uninspired) actors whose director fails to bring them together into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Nevertheless, I am intrigued by the experiment and will return with some curiousity for the next fornight’s instalment in this serial drama of food not as sustenance or flavour or even convenience, but as novelty, gimmick and idea.