"This is really overwhelming," my friend murmurs repeatedly as we drift with the crowds through the eye-candied aisles of IKEA. I nod sympathetically. A dozen different displays for decorating a bedroom can waggle the brain.
But I began treading this territory nearly two decades ago. I was in high school in Baltimore when one of the first IKEAs in the country opened there in 1986. Much of the furniture that filled my college and early adult apartments came from the blue and yellow behemoth.
It's been years since I've disappeared into an IKEA, though. And it's not the affordable sofas or design tips for 592 square feet of living space that have lured me to the new Atlanta outpost, appealing as it all is to my uninitiated chum.
I've come for the Swedish meatballs and the Swedish pancakes. With plenty of lingonberry sauce on both.
So I gently steer my friend from staged rooms of contemporary kitchen ideas to a shortcut that leads to the gray-tiled restaurant. It all functions the way I remember: The efficient cafeteria line starts with an array of cold food in cases, followed by the serving line for hot items. I grab a plate of gravlax with mustard-dill sauce and a chocolaty dessert called a Daim torte, and answer "Yes, please" when asked if I want gravy on my meatballs.
Hey, where are the rich, crepe-like Swedish pancakes I was craving?
"We only make those for breakfast," a line cook tells me. Boo. I distinctly recall eating those at lunch in the good ol' days. And didn't they used to offer smoked reindeer as an entree as well? Guess barbecued Rudolph didn't go over so hot in the U.S. of A.
This trio of dishes sates my inner adolescent nonetheless. The meatballs are like Swanson's-plus -- bite-sized pops of Salisbury steak with a barely perceptible nip of allspice and white pepper. I love the way the sweet-tart lingonberry sauce variegates through the mild brown gravy in pink streaks. (On a subsequent visit, I learn to ask for the spicy lingonberry sauce, which imbues the gravy with an extra, welcome ripple of pep.) The steamed potatoes on the side once came peeled but, as my mother would say, the skin is a good source of dietary fiber.
Daim torte is derived from a Heath bar-like confection of the same name that's popular in Sweden -- and manufactured by Kraft. The crunchy bits smothered in chocolate over the top of the torte wedge look like Rice Krispies, but they're actually shards of toffee. Not a bad sweet-tooth substitute for the pancakes.
I conclude my gorge with one last mouthful of torte and then look up from my tray. Sensory over-stimulation is part of the IKEA experience, but just this once I will my faculties into alertness so I can take in all the hungry, happy noises: the feline squeals of toddlers as their mothers feed them french fries; a round table of fastidiously coiffed men throwing their heads back in laughter; workers collecting silverware from the bussing stations and rushing it back to the dishwashing area. The place is mobbed at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday. Do any of these customers have jobs?
It suddenly hits me that this is the most racially diverse group I've ever seen eat together in the South. And I'm not just talking about blacks and whites supping in harmony. Every skin shade and ethnicity is represented in this room. Apparently, now that IKEA's here, Atlanta isn't just the city too busy to hate. It's the city too busy shopping to hate.
As I emerge from the restaurant, I pick up the reassuring scent of freshly baked cinnamon rolls that first greeted us when we walked into the store. I convince my pal to follow me through an "Employees Only" door by the children's indoor playground that allows us to bypass the checkout counters (there's something about the regimented passage through IKEA that makes me want to break a couple rules).
The cinnamon rolls are sold at the "exit bistro," an overly baroque moniker for what is essentially a hot dog stand. As handsome and gooey as those rolls are hot out of the oven, I'd much rather browse the Swedish food market next to the hot dog dispensary for some Scandinavian culinary novelties.
Favorite finds? Cloudberries, which are indigenous to Sweden, look like yellow raspberries with a ruddy blush. When made into preserves, the texture is more akin to orange marmalade. For snack time back at the office, I slather the cloudberry preserves over knackebrod, a thick cracker made with rye flour, and top it with herrgard, a gruyere-like cheese with a nutty, cheddary bite.
LantChips -- hand-cooked, seductively imperfect potato chips with an aggressive crunch -- are also impressive, though I won't be buying them again anytime soon. I've got a salt blister on my tongue from heedlessly plowing through two bags of them.
Bags of frozen meatballs, packages of gravy and bottles of lingonberry sauce are exhibited at the front of the market, but I'd never cart them home with me. Attempting to savor that iconic combination outside the cocoon of this 15-acre building would surely dispel its magnetism.
And yes, I did eventually try most everything offered in the cafeteria -- including '50s-style shrimp salad, limp roasted chicken breast and curiously tasteless apple cake -- and there's plenty I wouldn't order again. But why get uppity? The ingenious folks behind IKEA know how to play their strengths. Meatballs? Hot dogs? Candy-bar like desserts? Lingonberries -- which taste remarkably like cranberry sauce? For a store whose gastronomic inspiration comes from Sweden, there sure is a whole bunch of Americana crossover comfort food to be had.
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