For 75 years, the Swedish furniture retailer Ikea has cultivated a self-service, do-it-yourself, thrifty ethos known the world over. It’s a place famous for stylish housewares, from colanders to couches, with budget-friendly prices in most every corner of its massive blue warehouses.
It stands to reason, then, that reputation would carry over into the corner of the warehouse dedicated to food.
Each Ikea has a sit-down cafeteria-style restaurant offering a revolving assortment of prepared plates and made-to-order entrees, many with Swedish culinary heritage at heart. Salmon, meatballs and lingonberries, anyone?
Jacksonville’s Ikea, which opened Nov. 8 at Gate Parkway and the I-295 east Beltway, is no different. Its restaurant is midway between the furniture showroom and the grab-and-go marketplace. To get there, you have to snake your way through at least a few showroom departments, more if you skip the shortcuts and follow the well-marked floor path.
So is it worth the effort to navigate half the store, let alone the parking lot, to savor Ikea’s quick-serve eats? With featured breakfasts at $2, lunch plates for $3, and $4 dinner entrees and no obligation to part with anything more, budget-conscious diners may feel the pull. Of course, with its positioning in the store, Ikea’s hoping you’ll be hungry for more once you’re done eating.
The Jacksonville restaurant and cafe is an elevated cafeteria with stylish seating options, from spartan round tables to a separate family-friendly zone, with even a decor-rich section where you can browse couches while you dine nearby. Flat-screen kiosks reveal the day’s menu, including searchable nutritional information.
Desserts notwithstanding, a good majority of Ikea menu items are on the healthy side. even its signature Swedish meatballs plate comes with a petite dollop of mashed potatoes and a large portion of steamed veggies.
I joined a group of friends for dinner on a pre-Christmas Thursday night. The cafeteria offers a display case with prepared desserts, salads, wraps and appetizer plates, along with bottled waters, smoothies and soft drinks. Turn the corner and a team of employees will serve your choice of hot entree. Turn again and you’ll find a small DIY salad bar. The top price I spotted for a fully involved dinner plate, including vegetable and side, was $6.99. Ikea-branded fountain drinks and juice boxes were just a dollar. If you’re a member of Ikea Family, Ikea’s loyalty program, you’ll find additional discounts on select items.
We started with a small plate of marinated salmon ($4.99), featuring sliced salmon cured with dill, sugar and salt and served with a spring mix. While the salmon was deliciously fresh and moist, we would have loved to see it served with toasted bread or crostini. Without it, though, this one’s a safe bet for the gluten-free set.
Entree-wise, our Swedish meatballs ($4.99) boasted eight plump meatballs with mashed potatoes and seasonal veggies, finished with cream sauce and lingonberries, a close relative to the cranberry. The meatballs were plenty meaty but otherwise pretty plain-jane. Vegetarians can opt for a meat-free rendition ($3.99) of the same with a Thai-coconut curry sauce and brown rice blend, as I ordered. The thick, tangy Thai sauce with a late spicy bite hooked me on this entree.
During our visit, the $4 dinner special was the Chicken Cordon Bleu, a large, not-too-breaded and tender portion of golden chicken with a dollop of mashed potatoes and those steamed veggies that seemed to make it onto just about every entree plate. It was a substantial meal for a great deal.
Lighter appetites may opt for one of the prepared plates, a Vegetarian Wrap ($3.99) featuring red pepper hummus on a spinach wrap with carrots, spinach and grilled veggies. It was a healthy bite with flashes of flavor but pretty lightweight in the volume department.
Ikea’s desserts are not large enough to share with a group, so we sampled four: the Chocolate Conspiracy Cake ($2.99), Swedish Apple Cake ($2.49), Cream Cake with Marzipan ($1.49) and Blueberry/Raspberry Cheesecake ($2.99). Many layers of chocolate, including mousse and ganache, came together for our first selection, which resembled a brownie with a thick, fudgy frosting. The Cream Cake was our taste choice, with a hard shell giving way to a creamy, delectable center. The Swedish Apple Cake had a great, apple-filled texture but needs a flavor injection or an a la mode option. While the cheesecake was bursting with fruit flavor, it just needed more time to thaw out.
All things considered, I’d be very hard-pressed to visit Ikea just for their food. But if you’re in the thick of retail warfare, it’s a great option to pause and enjoy a quality meal that, like that bookshelf, won’t break the bank.
Jay Magee is a regular guy who needs a little balance in his life. That means spending as much time in the gym as he does in new restaurants. Find out how that’s working out for him at jaymagee.yelp.com or read one of his intermittent blog posts at jaymagee.com.