My parents were not into ABBA, and while I enjoyed The Cardigans as a teenager, Sweden for me was almost 100% associated with Ikea. It’s hard for me to fathom why Edmonton has had Ikea for so long when many other markets still go without. But I always forget the economic powerhouse that is the largest mall in the world, and that Ikea was housed there for a while in the 80s. Despite every bed (read: best friend) that’s ever been mine originating in one of those yellow and blue buildings where time and place disappear, I’ve never had a proper Swedish meal before the one I had last month. There have been post-shopping stops for cinnamon buns and ice milk cones, but I have no recollection of ever sitting in the Cafeteria. And while at Edmonton’s Heritage Days I would try to find room for the Scandinavian pavillion’s riskrem (Norwegian, not Swedish), meatballs with lingonberry jam was only something that I knew about, never tasted. Mostly because picky eating particularities would have me shying away.
I knew about them because of Ikea, obviously, but also because I remember a very young Marcus Samuelsson as a guest on Martha Stewart Living back in the day, when he was the new lauded chef at Aquavit. With Marcus now running his own little restaurant empire in Harlem, I had nearly forgotten about Aquavit until The New York Times updated their review last year. Like with so many reviews, profiles, blog posts, news items, pictures, tweets, and word-of-mouth recommends, I made a mental note of wanting to try it, which inevitably got lost among the rest of such notes in my brain. A reminder came when I read a promotional piece on a traditional Swedish Christmas meal Aquavit would run as a lunch special for most of December. With a chance to try some greatest hits at a swish place as a festive treat, I quickly made a reservation for my last Monday off before the official holiday.
A cup of warm glogg was included, but I couldn’t pass up trying the namesake beverage with my first course. My choice of aquavit infusion was pear, vanilla, and red peppercorn. I confirmed with my server that I could sip the vodka, but he corrected me with a no, it’s to be taken as a shot. A very Merry Christmas lunch! Unfortunately, down the hatch too fast to appreciate any of the flavours. I remember the Matjes herring to be the cured, the glassblower to be the pickled, or maybe vice versa. Either way, I liked the mustard (also pickled?) the best because of the sauce. But there was a noticeable texture difference between the Matjes and the glassblower, with the latter having more chew. A peanut potato is just the name of the varietal, and it was nicely served with brown butter and chopped hard-boiled egg. The gravlax might have been my favourite morsel on the plate, the cheese my least because it couldn’t compete with the assertiveness of the other components. The potato worked better as the mild contrast. As did the excellent dark rye bread.
I got my meatballs. And they were the best of the lot. Their firmness gave just enough push back on my knife to suggest a nice browning, yet their interiors were still very moist. My pleasure had me wondering, again, how much enjoyment I’ve lost out on over the years from being a picky eater and how I’ll ever be able to catch up on all that I’ve missed. The mini hot dog/sausages were tasty, as was the ham in its familiar way, but I found the spare rib’s glaze too sweet. I would have preferred that quadrant filled with three more meatballs.
This temptation is a traditional potato casserole. The cleverness of the anchovy tin comes from the fact that anchovies are a signature ingredient in the dish. But I could not see or taste a single salty fish, resulting in a rather ho-hum dish of potatoes with much too much dry breadcrumb topping.
I was really looking forward to this rice pudding semifreddo. Unfortunately, the cranberry sauce totally overpowered the mildness of the actual semifreddo. While you can see rice grains in that slice, the textural component was non-existent and the semifreddo ended up just being a creamy, flavour-lite backdrop. I wanted more vanilla or more chew to combat the sauce. I did not get the mignardises that other tables got, and I don’t know if that’s because I didn’t order coffee, because they forgot about me, or because the treats may have contained my allergens.
Any disappointment was fleeting because the glogg, aquavit, and then subsequent glass of pinot-noir-like red (described by my server as a “breakfast wine”) had me pretty happy for a Monday afternoon. I was especially not disappointed when head chef Emma Bengtsson made the rounds at the end of lunch service to say thank you to each table. With a messy bob of pink-tipped white blonde hair, she was a contemporary vision of 1994 Nina Persson. A week or so before another year was to advance, feeling like I was looking through my 15-year-old eyes was an unexpected and welcome stocking stuffer.