There was a time on this sceptr’d isle when English faces would contort like John Prescott chewing a particularly right-wing wasp at the thought of paying £3 for a cup of coffee.
Like a rubbish Camelot, this land of polystyrene cups filled with the milk of distilled car tyres is a lost kingdom, the memory of which has passed with the sands of time; lubricated with a far better beverage and hidden by the shame of considering what we once used to settle for.
Today the trinity of Starbucks, Costa, Nero and its apostles are all-pervasive in the nation’s high streets, train stations, airports, fast food restaurants, even bloody bookshops for God’s sake; it has been the greatest victory over a once-hostile British public since the Romans won over their naked blue ancestors with the promise of a good wash.
Slowly the British predilection for cheap crap over pleasant but slightly more expensive fare is being eroded and, perhaps surprisingly, it is the Americans who are succeeding where the French have for centuries failed.
Since the 1970s, of course, Uncle Sam has exploited our taste for cheap crap via greasy fast food. But it seems, in this brave new world of the £3 coffee, American cuisine has decided to meet us half way; enter the £8 burger.
Gourmet Burger Kitchen, for example, is an excellent lesson in the truly wonderful things one can do with a dish so long considered vulgar and unsophisticated. Five Guys, being essentially an overpriced Burger King with a inexplicably cult following, less so.
Shake Shack however, which opened in Covent Garden at virtually the same time as its disappointing rival, has far more right to demand you pay twice as much as you would in Burger King – at least when Massimo Bottura is calling the shots.
I admit to making my first visit on Sunday simply because, for one day only, the three Michelin-starred chef and 500 of his Emilia burgers were making an appearance. This is not, therefore, a vote of confidence in Shake Shack per se as this intriguing and potentially disastrous collaboration.
I say potentially disastrous because I have to admit I was fairly confused by it. I never understood, for example, what serious artists like Annie Liebovitz and Vanessa Beecroft felt they were gaining by working with someone like Kanye West and I cannot think of many collaborations between high and popular culture in which either party has come off particularly well.
I worried this alliance between fine dining and fast food may end the same way. Food, however, is an altogether different medium to both art and music; it either pleases or it doesn’t and, I am happy to say, I was not disappointed with the Emilia.
Being an Aberdeen Angus patty ground with cotechino sausage and parmigiano reggiano, topped with salsa verde and balsamic mayonnaise, though, it was never exactly going to disappoint, on the strength of the ingredients alone.
And yet, for one brief moment after that first bite, I had to remind myself of the limits of what I was eating. This wasn’t going to change my life. It was a burger.
But what a burger. The ground sausage not only added flavour to the patty (which, as fast food restaurants demonstrate, can be pretty flavourless when they’re 100 per cent beef) but also gave the texture that added, almost gritty, tactility. The parmigiano reggiano too, being essentially burnt onto the patty, delighted the senses with a crunch followed by the release of tangy, earthy, flavour.
This was delightfully complemented by the fresh, bright salsa verde which – looking not unlike Slimer’s unwelcome ectoplasmic discharge – tasted far better than it looked, and itself contrasted the rich creaminess of the balsamic mayonnaise.
And, like any good burger, the beauty of this fine cocktail of flavour was it all mashed gloriously together in a dirty, sexy mess far less glamorous than advertised.
The victory of the Emilia therefore, which I admit for a fleeting moment I mistook for disappointment, is that Massimo has not attempted to reinvent the wheel here or, for that matter, the burger. This is essentially the tried-and-tested formula with a slight upgrade in its ingredients and that subtle creative twist; a bit like Heston’s Earl Grey gin. It won’t change your life but it tastes bloody good and it’s worth every penny. Viva Massimo!