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McWaiter, there’s a gross pretence in my burger!!

We’re not loving it any more. McDonald’s has been having a torrid time: profits down 15% in America, calls to ban it from Russia and contamination scandals in China. Meanwhile, Britain’s TV chefs have spent years trumpeting healthier eating, sustainability, the provenance of food and the calamities of obesity. Many middle-class Brits have fled the yellow arches for ever.

So it is not surprising that, last week, the fast-food multinational was testing table service in some of its UK branches, like a proper restaurant. Or that its “food development director” had designed a Signature Collection (™): bigger burgers in a “brioche-style bun”. (This apparently had input from Michelin-starred chefs, although McDonald’s refused to tell me which ones.)
Sensing itself outflanked by Five Guys, Shake Shack, gastropubs and myriad better-burger rivals, McDonald’s has started to ape them. Could this be the moment that its fortunes turn?

The McDonald’s in Luton — one of only a handful of branches offering table service and the new gourmet menu — is spread across two readily wiped floors. Its furniture is Nordic-ish, and speakers pipe a tinny playlist of agreeable pop.
“I’ll meet you there!” the company’s UK PR manager had trilled. I replied that that would not be necessary. So she emailed to say that the regional communications person would be there to scrutinise me anyway.

Several thousand calories, including three burgers from the Signature Collection (™), a Big Mac, a cheeseburger, some species of chicken wrap and fries, ordered from a touchscreen, cost £25. I chatted to Peter, the regional PR, who answered questions about antibiotics, the “pink slime” used until recently in the company’s American burgers, high-fructose corn syrup and other monstrosities — and then emailed asking me not to use his name.

Fifteen minutes after I had ordered — an eternity, presumably, for the average customer — a brace of staff wearing headsets and nervous smiles brought over the trays. Being handed a McDonald’s meal at a screwed-down table on a bleached, tiled floor is the closest I ever hope to get to a final dinner on Death Row.

What you notice first about a burger from the Signature Collection (™) is the almost unworldly uniformity of its bun. It is a flawless auburn hemisphere, the colour of human skin in a suncream commercial. You know instantly what “brioche-style” means: this dough is engineered, not cooked. The crust does not break when you press down on it: it is as elastic and impermeable as latex. Jeremy, the photographer, whispers: “It’s like something from a 3D printer.”

The burger is brown and gritty. A strip of bacon, a grey and weeping sliver of “cheese” and some lurid squirts of sugar-chemicals complete the experience. The overall flavour is of an exhaustive and margin-dictated experiment in food chemistry: a Martian simulacrum of the good burgers that confident British restaurants have been serving for years.

The experience illustrates how McDonald’s is trapped. Titanic cannot change its course: altering the essential product would put off too many customers. Nobody would eat a laboratory-designed item from the Signature Collection (™), even if it was brought to them by someone pretending to be a waiter, and not recognise this depressing ploy for what it is.

Source: - 31 January 2016