My sister-in-law, who is very funny, says it is every American’s duty to shop at Ikea at least once.
The idea is amusing, but the fact of it is daunting. The stores, which specialize in Swedish-designed furniture, are massive. Huge. They’re like Delaware, without the beaches. So the great Scandinavian designers scattered a few places throughout the store where you can buy food, in case you become lost and famished.
The chain’s 41st store in America, technically in the Central West End (it’s at the corner of Vandeventer and Forest Park avenues), opens Wednesday. The cafeteria-style restaurant, which is the largest area devoted to food, is located at the top of the entrance escalator, just past the Hektar kitchen lamps, the Älmsta chair, the Möckelby table and the Lappljung Ruta rug sitting atop the Stopp Filt mat.
Once safely at the restaurant, many people will want to sample the meatballs. After all, Swedish meatballs are one of the things that Sweden is most known for, culinarily, along with Swedish fish candies (they sell those, too, in the market near the checkout aisles).
So I tried the meatballs at a press event last week. And I have to say they were a little disappointing. They tasted like meat and they were in the shape of balls, so they satisfied all the official requirements for meatballs. But that’s all they did, though they are served with a seasonally changing sauce.
If you are expecting them to be served with toothpicks in a sweet glaze, then you are thinking of what the Ikea folks call party meatballs. They sell the ingredients for those (meatballs, lingonberry jam and free recipe cards) in the market.
The meatballs come in a traditional beef-pork mixture, chicken or vegetable.
More impressive, I thought, was the gravlax. Gravlax is like smoked salmon without the smoke; it is cured in a mixture of sugar, salt and spices. Ikea’s version is silken and luscious and luxuriant; it practically melts in your mouth. It is salmon as it is meant to be.
To munch on with that gravlax, why not try the hearty round crackers Ikea calls crispbread (or Flerkorn) but the rest of America calls RyKrisps? They come in three styles — mixed grain, rye and a combination of rye and bran — and are great with butter, cheese or jam.
Cheeses are sold in the market: a farmers’ cheese; Herrgard (similar to a mild Swiss, such as Jarlsberg); and Präst (a bit sharp, similar to pecorino). For jam, they have a choice of blueberry, strawberry, a blueberry-raspberry mix and lingonberry.
Lingonberries are almost as famous as Swedish meatballs and Swedish fish. They are intensely flavored, sweeter than cranberries but still tart. I suspect they are polarizing; you either like them or you don’t. I do not, as of yet, like them.
So naturally I tried a sparkling lingonberry-apple juice. The apple helps. I did not have the equally intriguing sparkling pear juice.
Naturally, you cannot think of Scandinavian food without thinking about pickled herring. Ikea offers three types in jars. One, both sweet and salty, is marinated with onions and carrots; one (my favorite) is marinated with dill; and one, the mildest in flavor, is marinated in a sauce of mustard and cream.
For the total, full-on Swedish experience, the store lays out a true smorgasbord with all the bells and whistles. You’ve got to try the deviled eggs filled with creamy fish roe. It is one of the best uses ever for eggs, and probably the very best for creamy fish roe.
Unfortunately, the smorgasbord is only offered four times a year. Springtime dishes are served at the paskbord, around Easter. A midsummer celebration, common across Europe, will be held in June. In September it’s a crayfish feast. And the holidays are celebrated in December with a Julbord buffet.
So much food is available at Ikea that you are bound to feel a bit sleepy after eating it all. Perhaps that is why they have all those beds and chairs.