- I went to the IKEA in Red Hook to eat everything on the restaurant’s menu.
- I ate vegetable soup, blackberry and blue cheese salad, gravlax, coleslaw, chicken tenders, Swedish meatballs, salmon balls, veggie balls, a salmon dinner, marzipan cake, and chocolate conspiracy cake.
- There were some real winners and losers in the mix, but the gravlax – traditional Scandinavian cured salmon with dill – was by far the best dish.
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When you enter IKEA, you must brace yourself for a long, harrowing journey.
You’ll traverse vast plains of pillows and particle board, surmount towers of glassware, and puzzle your way through labyrinths of mood lightning before you can emerge victorious at the checkout aisle.
Any such journey requires sustenance, and since Sweden hasn’t figured out how to make elf bread yet, IKEA offers the next best thing: its cafeteria-style restaurant in the middle of the store.
I’ve been an occasional (who goes furniture shopping on a regular basis?) of IKEA’s cafeteria since the late 90s, when my mum would drag pint-sized me on furniture trips.
I used to dread visits to IKEA, lest I be marooned in the play area with TVs that always seemed to be playing the animated “Alvin and the Chipmunks” series on Cartoon Network. But after enduring several hours of torture via singing cartoon rodent, I could sometimes guilt trip my mum into buying me a plate of IKEA meatballs.
IKEA’s Swedish-ish meatballs are perhaps the furniture giant’s most iconic dish. But are they its only dish? Far from it.
In fact, IKEA has two other kinds of balls: salmon and veggie. And in fact, IKEA even has cake, chocolate, chicken tenders, fries, salad, soup, and gravlax – traditional Scandinavian cured salmon with dill – among other things.
I decided to return to IKEA with the new goal of trying all the food at its restaurant. Like Frodo and Gandalf at the end of “The Lord of the Rings” sailing off to the Undying Lands, I embarked upon the 20-minute ferry ride from Battery Park to Red Hook ready for my next adventure.
As the ferry approached Red Hook, a fortress of navy blue and taxi yellow appeared on the horizon.
Inside were clear walls of glass and lush vegetation draping from an embossed white ceiling.
Seating was as plentiful as stars in the night sky.
An arrow painted on the floor made clear the path forward. I crossed the threshold into the cafeteria.
First, I equipped myself with several trays and a trusty fork and knife.
The dessert case. Ally? Enemy? Depends on your perspective.
The same could be said about the salad case. I chose a salad with blackberries and blue cheese.
At least there was my steadfast old mentor, the drink case.
I took a leap of faith and chose this round pink cake from the dessert case.
Clad in all white, the stewards scooped heaping portions onto my plates.
I asked for one of everything. “As you wish,” I wish they had answered. Instead, they gave me a strange look like I was delusional or something.
Since I’d already chosen a salad from the salad case, I mostly ignored these neglected tubs of lettuce.
This fruit and candy bar reminded me of the dessert case I’d encountered earlier, only less exciting. Still, my biggest challenge was yet to come: carrying three overburdened trays to the checkout counter.
“I can’t carry them for you,” they said at the checkout counter. “But can you carry me?” I asked. Again, I received a strange look.
At long last, the bounty of my journey was ready to meet my fork and knife.
And a spoon. I forgot a spoon, so I went back for one. I’d nearly missed the soup, but then the woman in the couple behind (then later ahead of) me had said, “Honey, don’t forget the soup.” Probably to her husband, but hey, I benefited from the reminder too.
SOUP, $US2.49 — This soup was both colourful and veggieful. It had okra in it, which, well, OK?
It was criminally undersalted, and therefore underwhelming. The chunks of meat were tough and flavourless.
BLACKBERRY SALAD, $US3.99 — I forgot and also couldn’t find the dressing for this salad. Maybe it’s something I should have added at the salad bar I’d ignored.
It was spring mix topped with blackberries, walnuts, and blue cheese.
It was tough to eat because of the bite-resistant blackberry seeds. I’m not convinced that blackberries go well with blue cheese. Maybe it would have been better with dressing.
GRAVLAX — $US5.49. Gravlax is not a character from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but rather a traditional Nordic dish consisting of cured salmon and dill.
It came with spring greens, a parsley garnish, and a dill honey mustard dressing.
The salmon was soft and fresh, and the light crisp of the leaf served as a perfect base for the pungent fish, airy dill, and tart honey mustard sauce. I couldn’t believe how good it was, especially for the price.
SALMON BALLS, $US5.99 — I’m not sure why IKEA felt the need to put salmon in ball form. It was perfectly fine the way it was.
They had a golden-brown crust that made me suspect they were deep-fried. I ignored the boiled veggies, because who boils veggies?
The salmon balls were indeed crispy on the outside, but they were dry and overcooked inside.
The lemon dill sauce was a nice effort, but ultimately these were just confusing.
VEGGIE BALLS, $US3.99 —These were served over cracked rice instead of mashed potatoes. Why? More healthful, I guess.
They looked dry from the get-go.
And dry they were. But I was surprised that they had a curry flavour and that the sauce was spiced with garam masala. Those flavours work in South Asian food, but here, they were just strange.
MEATBALLS, $US5.99 — The OG meatball, IKEA’s claim to fame and my childhood sweetheart.
At long last, I was reunited with my favourite mushy, meaty paramour.
I read online somewhere that you’re supposed to eat these by cutting them in half, dipping them in mashed potatoes, then dipping them in lingonberry sauce.
The meatballs were indeed everything I remembered. Supernaturally soft, juicy, and savoury-sweet, they harmonized with every element of the plate — except the boiled veggies. Seriously, no one should boil veggies.
DRINK INTERMISSION — I’d asked the checkout lady if my meal came with a drink. She looked at all the food on my trays and said, “Sure.” Halfway through my meal, I remembered my free drink.
STILL LINGONBERRY DRINK — In the spirit of adventure, I decided to sample all the fruit flavours. First up: classic Lingonberry. It was sweet and sour, but not too much of either.
SPARKLING PEAR DRINK — I loved this. It was fragrant and sweet, and reminded me of much pricier pear sodas available at hipster coffee shops.
SPARKLING LEMON DRINK — Meh. There was a hint of flavour, but it was the least robust. It also wasn’t very sweet.
SPARKLING RASPBERRY DRINK — The flavour actually reminded me of blackcurrant candy. However, it wasn’t sweet.
CHICKEN TENDERS, KIDS MEAL, $US3.49 — These weren’t really advertised on the menu, so I didn’t know I was getting them until the cafeteria guy asked me if I wanted chicken tenders.
Even though I’m older than 12, I can never say no to a crispy chicken tender.
Except maybe these. They were unbelievably tough, chewy, and dry. It was difficult to get even one bite down. Pass. The fries were fine.
COLESLAW, $US1.29 — Not sure why I picked up this tiny plastic cup of coleslaw on my way out.
I probably felt obligated to take something from the confusing fruit/chocolate/slaw bar.
It was nice and crunchy-fresh, but way too sweet. I wish it had eased off the sugar and leaned more into the mustard seed seasoning.
SALMON DINNER, $US7.99 — The salmon had been sitting in a heated container when I ordered it, so I was not optimistic.
It came with lemon dill sauce, boiled veggies (ew), and a fried potato cake.
Sometimes, people — and fish — can surprise you. The salmon was absolutely delicious. It was overcooked in parts, but where it wasn’t, it was soft and appropriately salted. The lemon dill sauce was a perfect complement.
The potato cake had a distinct refrigerator flavour, but otherwise wasn’t too bad. It just wasn’t as crispy and fresh as one would desire a potato cake to be.
MARZIPAN CAKE, $US1.49 — Now onto actual cake. I admit that I chose this one because it was attractive.
Not only Molly Ringwald is pretty in pink.
I was surprised that it actually tasted pink — like raspberry.
It was soft and fluffy. The cake underneath had a Twinkie-like texture. However, the frosting was gritty.
CHOCOLATE CONSPIRACY CAKE, $US2.99 — I’m on a see-cake diet: I see cake, and I eat it.
The chocolate conspiracy cake (what is the conspiracy?!) looked appetizing: rich, deep brown with chocolate flakes on top.
This was waaaaay too sweet for my taste. It was soft, but not all that moist, and tasted like cake mix. The chocolatey frosting wasn’t bad, though.
Of the 12-plus parts of my journey through the food of IKEA, the most memorable moment was the gravlax. Its simple, quality ingredients, attractive palette, and affordable price point embodied the sleek Nordic soul of IKEA.
But the love I have for IKEA’s original meatballs is eternal. And our journey together didn’t end here. As the IKEA ferry pulled away from shore, I felt sure that we would meat again.
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