Jane Stern: Ikea Restaurant is worth the trip

Photo of Jane Stern

I have never been to Sweden but I have been to Ikea. Ikea is a wonderland of beautiful cheap stuff all designed with the Scandinavian hallmark of graceful simplicity. Sometimes I can't wrap my head around how such cool stuff is actually affordable.

With my love for beautiful bargains in place I decided to have dinner at The Ikea Restaurant which is set up cafeteria style. I had eaten breakfast and lunch here a few months ago and was impressed with the quality of the food and the low prices. They practically give you the food for free, at least it seemed that way to me after wrestling with the price of a good meal in our home state.

The Ikea style is carried over to the eatery: sleek, modern, and functional. There is a lot of modular white plastic furniture and even at dinnertime the room looks bright and happy. When you arrive you take a tray and silverware and join the line. As usual I wanted everything, but I asked for three dinners which raised some eyebrows but not as many as if I walked away with the entire menu on a tray.

Before I even looked at the photos of the meals I knew what I wanted. Ikea is famous for their Swedish meatballs. There are two types: Meat (a mix of beef and pork) and vegetarian ones, and new to the menu are "balls" made from a mix of salmon and cod. I am glad that our state is The Land of Steady Habits because no one could possibly be more set in their ways than yours truly. So it should not surprise you that I yet again ordered the meatballs. I am so glad I did. They came with a little mound of lingonberry jam (one of Sweden's gifts to the culinary world), creamy gravy and real mashed potatoes.There were probably some vegetables on the plate, but I ignored them.

My second dinner was a truly delicious plate of pork tenderloin. The mild flavor of the pork was jazzed up a bit by rhubarb habanero. I had never tasted this condiment before but believe me it was just what the plate needed. The rhubarb's zesty astringency and the heat of the peppers was genius. In keeping with the modernity of Ikea, instead of potatoes there was a melange of trendy farro, brown rice, and quinoa. It tasted healthy, but I still liked it. Again, if there were vegetables I ignored them. My third dinner was a toss up between turkey medallions and gravad lax (marinated salmon). I figured that the turkey was too much like the meatballs (cream gravy and mashed potatoes), but I knew myself well enough to know that to order the turkey was a devious way to eat more lingonberry jam, which comes on the side.

The gravad lax (which sounds to me like a hopeless medical condition) was the most
Swedish of all things offered. Like American lox (a bagel's best friend) the lax was a beautiful coral pink. It was sided by cream cheese, crackers and lemon wedge. As I poked at it with my fork I looked around the room and copped a superior attitude to those people who ordered plebeian chicken tenders. I tried to look very cool and Scandinavian, but fooled no one.

Long ago I wrote an article about the evolution of cafeterias. One of the things I learned was why most big chain cafeterias always put the desserts first before you get to the meat and potatoes. The reason for this backwards seeming display makes sense. If you fill up your tray with roast beef or fried chicken, then get side dishes and maybe a salad, you will feel like a pig adding desserts to your tray. But when they are the first thing you see, you grab one or two on impulse and then head down the line.

I was impressed by the dessert selection at Ikea Restaurant. I fell head over heels for the princess cake. It would have been my idea of a perfect food when I was eleven, and now that I am way past that it still makes me sentimental for girlie stuff like music boxes and hair bows.

Culinary wonders from the world of IKEA.

Culinary wonders from the world of IKEA.

Yana P

The princess cake is small circle of cream cake, layered with raspberry jam and vanilla custard with Barbie doll pink marzipan fitted neatly over the whole thing. There were about four or five other desserts but I fell hard for the princess cake, and also for the mysteriously named Chocolate Conspiracy Cake. It was a brownie-sized chocolate cake covered in mirror-smooth ganache.

When I finished, I tried to figure out where to drop off my tray. This was not so easy. It was as puzzling as putting a piece of Ikea furniture together. So I just pretended I was in a foreign country that had its own rules and regulations for trays, and since I was not from "there" I could just put my tray down anywhere which I did until a kitchen worker shot me a look and placed the tray in the proper place.

When you are through eating, make sure you stop at the Ikea Food Market on the ground floor near the check out cash registers. Here you can buy frozen packages of the divine Swedish pancakes that are only available during breakfast. There were jars and jars of lingonberry jam for sale, as well as bags of the meatballs. And wouldn't you know it in the dessert section were princess cakes.

Ikea Restaurant

450 Sargent Drive

New Haven, CT 06511

When I am on my way to New Haven and pass Ikea I don't always stop for a meal, but not once have I missed my chance to go to the market and fill my basket. Probably half my pantry at home is filled with Ikea stuff and I guard it closely. I worry people I know (also known as my friends) might stop by to see if I am defrosting the Swedish pancakes and spooning out lingonberry jam. I have my alibi down pat. I will laugh and say, "sorry those are Eggo waffles you smell".