Köttbullar and Chrome

When you find yourself at IKEA, you don't have to be afraid of the food.

On October 11, I entered an IKEA outlet for the first time in my life. For years, friends had shared hair-raising tales about this nerve-wracking experiment in rampant capitalism, and as a result I’ve tended to avert my gaze when passing its primary-colored portals. But on this particular autumn day, I yielded to its siren song when I should’ve been watching the baseball playoffs or the Blue Angels. My goal, as usual: finding something to eat.

IKEA was founded as a mail-order business 55 years ago by a Swedish entrepreneur named Ingvar Kamprad. The company began designing its low-cost, ready-to-assemble furniture in 1953, and the first warehouse store opened five years later. Today the company’s nearly three hundred outlets attract shoppers looking for new kitchen cabinets or that sleek chrome tchotchke that will bring the whole rumpus room together. Another draw is the ubiquitous IKEA cafeteria, the only place in the whole barnlike structure where the beleaguered shopper can relax, reflect, and stow away some protein before reentering the fray. These aren’t your typical casserole-and-Jell-O cafeterias, either; in a salute to the company’s Scandinavian heritage, the cuisine is primarily old-country Svenska. This isn’t to say that the food is particularly awesome; it’s a cafeteria, for God’s sake. But how many joints around here serve up smørrebrod, gravlax, and apple cake?

The answer is, not many. So IKEA is it when you’re in that dill-and-caraway mood. The Emeryville branch pretty much follows the standard company layout, with the geography nudging an unending parade of shoppers through a blond-wood labyrinth of furniture showrooms before depositing them at the cash registers or, if they’ve been paying attention, the cafeteria. Following the store’s overarching decor, lots of glass, chrome, and metal accent the dining hall’s counters and supping areas. Big picture windows let in lots of light and look out on a frontage of palm trees and picturesque I-80. Family-style butcher-block tables are interspersed with little vertical tables and low-backed barstools, and an array of totally IKEA lighting options — Japanese lanterns, silver cones, Christmas lights — drip from the ceiling. It’s a clean-lined, efficiently organized place to enjoy a quick fika (coffee break) or full-on meal.

Culinary IKEA — and culinary Sweden, for that matter — is most famous for its köttbullar, aka Swedish meatballs, tiny orbs of ground meat, breadcrumbs, and milk served with gravy and lingonberry preserves. The cafeteria’s meatballs are moist comfort food, nothing special, with a mountain of stiff mashed potatoes doused in an inoffensive cream sauce with a sweet, bracing lingonberry sauce jazzing things up. More impressive is the gravlax, called “gravad lax” here. This salt- and sugar-cured variation on smoked salmon is a hallowed Swedish delicacy, and IKEA does it right, accenting the fish’s fork-tender, silky texture with fresh dill, lemon wedges, and a drizzle of hovmästarsås, the sweet, spicy dill-mustard sauce. It’s especially tasty on the light, crunchy crispbread sold near the cash register.

Smørrebrød (“buttered bread”) is a Danish knife-and-fork open-faced sandwich of infinite variety — the bread (preferably sour rye) can be topped with anything from lobster or pickled herring to liver paste, blue cheese, or a raw egg yolk — and IKEA’s contribution is a delectable mosaic of plump, sweet tiny shrimp, rounds of hard-boiled egg, paper-thin cucumber slices and a bed of mayo-daubed romaine on rye; a light yet satisfying snack. Pyttipanna (“leftovers in pan”), a traditional hash of diced, fried potatoes, onions, and sausage, gets a vegetarian rendition here, substituting the pork with chunks of carrot, sweet pepper, and green and yellow string beans. The result is heavy and unexciting, and an unconvincing basil-cream sauce doesn’t help much. The apple-glazed salmon is a marginally better bet: a thick filet of (somewhat chewy) fish draped with big tender chunks of carrot, potato, and onion.

Among the non-Scandinavian menu items are a big lusty bowl of Greek salad ribboned with feta, tomatoes, chopped black olives, and cucumber, with a rich, spiky dressing adding plenty of pizzazz. The Buffalo chicken wrap had a nice spicy afterbite and a good, chunky blue cheese dip, but it’s nothing spectacular. Ditto the Chocolate Overload cake, a pretty good example of supermarket-bakery cuisine. But another dessert, the Swedish apple cake, featured big chunks of tart, juicy apple touched with lemon and cinnamon wrapped in moist, spicy pound cake.

As befits any family-oriented enterprise, IKEA makes a point of accommodating the kiddies. Child-scaled plates of pasta, meatballs, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, baby carrots, mixed veggies, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, yogurt, and cookies are available for 99 cents apiece, or three for $2.49. And in addition to highchairs, bibs, and a bottle-warming station, there’s a play area with kid-sized kindergarten-green tables stacked with building blocks and wooden toys.

Aside from the pyttipanna potato-string bean mélange and a platter of penne pasta with marinara sauce, there isn’t a whole lot for vegetarians to feast upon in IKEA’s cafeteria. (One can always fill up on the crispbread and apple cake, I suppose.) There’s also a dearth of wine, beer, and other alcoholic beverages, but tucked in the cooler among the juices and colas are tall black Guinness-like cans of Kopparberg, a Swedish cider made from pear juice and “de-alcoholised pear wine.” Aromatically floral upon opening, it’s a sparkly, refreshing treat with a delectable sweet-pear flavor.

IKEA offers food options beyond the cafeteria’s steam tables, too. Next to the checkout section downstairs is the Exit Bistro, a perpetually bustling fast-food counter where one can snack on frozen yogurt, freshly baked cinnamon buns that smell awfully good, or a perfectly respectable 50-cent hot dog. And if the cafeteria has aroused any heretofore dormant Scandinavian tastebuds, there’s a Swedish Food Market nearby where the wannabe kokerska can purchase a shopping cart’s worth of lefse, lutefisk, lingonberry preserves, gingerbread, smoked herring, äppelflarn, rösti, fontina cheese, Swedish fish, Nygårda cola, nonalcoholic glögg — everything you need for your next smörgåsbord. Skoal!


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