For many relationships, a trip to the sprawling Swedish furniture store IKEA (https://www.ikea.com/) is a gauntlet to run, a compatibility test, or an exercise in survival. It may be the event that seals a couple’s fate, as to whether they should move in together or even spend their lives together. I like seeing the different room layouts and knowing there are almost infinite options when it comes to affordable, whimsically-named Swedish home furnishings and accoutrements, even though I never seem to need anything there. So I can dig that TORMUND, that EDDARD, scope out that cute YGRITTE or consider that intriguing BRONN, but I’m pretty good at avoiding unnecessary impulse buys (except for food). It’s just neat to browse around there. My wife, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with it. She trusts me to be the hunter and the gatherer, and I am happy to have the adventure and save her the schlep.
But my favorite parts of a trip to IKEA are the cafeteria at the beginning and the food market at the end. They have lots of imported Swedish foods that are tasty and cheap, most of which you can’t get anywhere else in the Orlando area, so that’s the big draw for me. I love exploring new grocery stores as much as I love exploring new restaurants, especially international ones. And as my wife has learned, I can usually be counted on to come home with new treasures and wonders, as well as new stories.
Even though I’m sure you’ve heard of IKEA’s super-cheap breakfasts and controversial Swedish meatballs before, you may not realize that every December, IKEA throws a traditional Julbord, an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord buffet. It happens to have a lot of foods I love: not just the tasty meatballs, but najad salmon (thin-sliced, marinated, smoked salmon, similar to our nova salmon but with dill added), different kinds of pickled herring, cheeses, ham, sausages, desserts, and more. It’s one day a year, and I’ve never been able to make it. There is always something going on at work that day that keeps me away.
But this year, I heard about IKEA hosting a Midsummer Smorgasbord this past Friday evening, probably similar to their holiday Julbord, with a lot of the same dishes. This one was another all-you-can-eat affair, for only $16.99, or $12.99 if you’re an IKEA member (which I am not). Heck, I could easily eat more than $16.99 worth of smoked salmon alone. That stuff is amazing!
A friend of mine was patient and cool enough to meet me there, and he even picked us up advance tickets. Yes, IKEA was probably selling tickets for this buffet weeks in advance, and it got quite crowded the evening of the smorgasbord. But my friend and I are old pros at this kind of thing. We arrived early and lined up ahead of the growing crowd, because when it comes to buffets, early is on time, and on time is late. We came to PLAY, to go big before we go home.
This was the bill of fare:
My friend had survived the holiday Julbord before, and he said tables were going to be at a premium. He offered to hold our table to give me a chance to get through the line, and then he would go when I came back. It was a self-sacrificing move, the epitome of taking one for the team, so of course I offered to do the same and let him go first. But he is such a mensch, he held his ground and insisted. I took him up on his generous offer, but in retrospect, I wish I had forced the issue and said we would brave the line together and take our chance finding a table at the end of our quest. But more on that later.
This was the Swedish cucumber salad — thin-sliced cucumbers in a vinaigrette with pickled red onions. I always say that I’m trying to develop my palate for pickles, so I took a healthy scoop.
I’m a sucker for potato salad — one of my favorite ways to eat potatoes. Baked? Boring, unless you load them with more and more unhealthy toppings! Mashed? Often boring. Smashed? Heeeey, those are just mashed, but you left the skin in there! Fries? Sure, but you have the shortest window to finish them before they become inedible. Chips? Okay, I’m always on board for chips. Hash browns? Perfection. But serve them soft and chilled, tossed in some mayo or vinegar, add finely-chopped vegetables, herbs, and spices, and I’m down.
This was a cabbage-based salad — essentially cole slaw, both creamy and vinegary at once, with a nice coolness and a refreshing crunch.
Hard-boiled eggs (not actually deviled eggs) topped with that wonderful thin-sliced, marinated, smoked najad salmon. I could have happily eaten nothing but this and gotten my money’s worth.
More hard-boiled eggs, topped with red seaweed pearls that serve as vegetarian caviar. In my haste of making my way through the buffet line, I took this photo but forgot to take any of these.
Here’s that good stuff: a huge platter of the marinated, smoked najad salmon, served chilled and thin enough to melt in your mouth.
At this point, I had moved my tray past the cold items and was in front of the hot stuff. There were attendants asking everyone what I wanted, so it was harder to photograph everything as I worked my way through. But they had three different kinds of Swedish meatballs: the classic beef-based, chicken, and vegetarian. I asked for some of all three kinds, with a bit of gravy.
They also had shrimp salad, boiled and mashed potatoes (I opted for boiled), and steamed vegetables, which heavily featured asparagus, one of my faves.
Then I made it to another chilled area with some cubed Swedish cheese, three different kinds of pickled herring, and four kinds of desserts. As always, I tried to get a little bit of everything, and regular Saboscrivner readers know from my recent pilgrimage to New York’s Russ & Daughters Cafe how much I love pickled herring. These were served straight out of the glass jars they sell in the food market downstairs, and I made a mental note to return and get some for the road if I liked it. (Spoiler alert: of course I did!)
So this was the first heroic plate I assembled with all the cold items. Loved the najad salmon, the three kinds of pickled herring, the potato salad, and the cole slaw. If this was all I ate, I would have been totally content. The cheese was sharper than I expected, which is rarely a bad thing. The different herrings included one in a mustard and dill sauce (at 12:00), pickled with dill (at 3:00), and spiced matjes herring (at 9:00), which I tried at Russ & Daughters.
And this was my hot plate. The white stuff in the top right was a creamy lemon caper sauce, maybe the only thing I didn’t love, because I just don’t care for capers. The potatoes and vegetables could have been seasoned a little better, but they were okay. All three kinds of meatballs were great. Very tasty, with nice textures I enjoyed.
They were serving coffee, tea, and cola, but these were the Swedish fountain drink options. I tried the lingonberry drink (very subtly sweet) and the sparkling lemon fruit water (quite refreshing).
And finally, my desserts. The angel food strawberry shortcake was a little bland, as angel food cake always is. The chocolate dome on the top had a thin chocolate shell, covering sticky, gooey marshmallow filling. It was just okay. But the other two items were very good. The wedge of chocolate cake was rich and gooey, like brownie batter. I loved it, and I knew that even though my wife doesn’t share my love for the IKEA cafeteria, she would have loved that. The chocolatey thing on the bottom was covered with coconut flakes and had a rich, gooey center that reminded me of cocoa, coffee, caramel, and spiced Biscoff cookies.
Well, as you can see, I ate like a king. But this story doesn’t have the happiest ending because even though I made my way through the line pretty quickly, being near the front of it, my buddy who saved our table wasn’t so lucky. When I returned, he went off to get in line, and I waited, doing my best to be polite and not eat without him. But he came back empty-handed almost 15 minutes later, frustrated that the line hadn’t moved at all! IKEA has two sides to its cafeteria, one on the left and one on the right. But for this big event, which they sold advance tickets for and could have easily anticipated the turnout, they only had the left side open, leading to major slowdowns and delays. After all that, my friend, a good enough friend to have picked up our tickets, didn’t get to eat!
Now, I offered to share all my food with him, and you can see how much I grabbed. Hey, I always like to share my food with my friends, and I wasn’t sick or anything, but he wasn’t having it. I offered to wait too, but he was frustrated and didn’t want to waste even more time getting into that unmoving line again. I felt really guilty, and he tried to make me feel better by saying he had a huge lunch, but I still felt like a heel. But it wasn’t my fault, or his. Despite how good most of the food was, IKEA really needs to work on its organization and have enough people available to meet the demand if they’re going to host big events like this, especially when they have the perfect means of knowing how many people will be coming, and therefore, how busy they will be.
Anyway, we hung out and caught up, I ate, and then we headed downstairs to the market. You can see they have four different kinds of pickled herring in small jars for a very affordable $2.99, including three of the ones I enjoyed at dinner.
I picked two out of the refrigerated case, SILL INLAGD and SILL MATJES.
These were the two desserts I liked, including the gooey brownie-like thin chocolate cake. Apparently KAFFEREP is memorable moments with laughter and cake and/or pastries.
I also got a bag of frozen PANNKAKOR, Swedish pancakes that are more like crepes. I made these for my wife on Saturday morning and served them with some good bacon, ricotta cheese, and blackberry preserves. (PANNKAKOR totally sounds like a forgotten minor character from Masters of the Universe, which was not one of my favorite childhood cartoons.)
My whole IKEA market haul:
So after years of trying and failing to make it to the IKEA all-you-can-eat buffet, I finally got to eat all I could eat, while my poor friend didn’t get any food at all. It was good, but I don’t think I’ll rush back next Midsummer or lose any sleep when I inevitably can’t make it to the December Julbord. I got it out of my system. But if you go on a normal day, they really do serve some surprisingly good and cheap food at IKEA. If you go with your significant other and eat first, you might forestall one of those infamous IKEA passive-aggressive fights. And if you’re brave enough to attend one of the all-you-can-eat events, even after reading this, buy your tickets in advance, arrive early with your entire party, go through the line together, and take your chances getting a table. The alternative is far, far worse.