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Welcome to the Ikea Cafe, a 550-seat monster

At Tres Jolie, shopping while eating is a delightfully indulgent experience; you can sip a champagne cocktail while picking up throw pillows or snack on a cookie while custom-mixing lotion. But this is not the only place in town where you can spend the afternoon consuming both food and goods. There's also Ikea.

When the massive furniture monger opened an outpost in Centennial this summer, it came with the biggest restaurant in any of the Swedish chain's American stores: a 550-seat monster that offers a Swedish-themed menu to fuel shoppers for another foray through the aisles of the two-floored mega-market, or to give respite to harried companions.

Ikea is all about efficiency, so while there's no eating and browsing at the same time, you also don't have to set foot in the retail area to reach the cafe, which is located up an escalator on the second floor. But you won't escape the line: At 2 p.m. on a weekday, I was surprised to find that giant, cafeteria-like dining room half full, with a crowd snaking through a Disneyland-style maze — complete with chained-off rows and crowd-management employees. Thanks to that Swedish efficiency, though, the wait was surprisingly short. When my turn came, I simply took a tray and slid it down the rails, assembling my lunch the way you assemble your Ikea living-room set: by moving through the line and picking up items from here and there until you have all your necessary components, then paying per item when you're finished. (You can also opt for one of a handful of hot-food combos, which net you a meat, mashed potatoes and a garden salad, plus a soda.) I skipped the salads topped with oddly hued shrimp at the front, grabbed a dessert, and otherwise saved myself for the hot-food line, where a woman was doling out Swedish meatballs, roasted chicken and dry-looking salmon under heat lamps.

I had to go for the Swedish meatball combo, ordering it from an unsmiling employee who was assembling five plates at once. About three seconds later, I received a scoop of mashed potatoes, a spoonful of lingonberry jam and about ten little brown balls, which were then coated in a slop of brown gravy. I took my meal and found a seat in the dining area filled with Ikea light-wood tables and chairs and brightly lit by massive snowflake-like lamps. As I listened to the flannel-shirted couple next to me switch conversation topics from their favorite towns in Vermont to how great it was that Ikea served organic milk, I dug in.

The best Swedish meatballs use pork, beef, breadcrumbs, salt and onions, in varying amounts; although the ingredients were the same, these were not the best. These were the fast-food version, clearly brought back to life from a deep freeze and dry on the outside, though the gravy masked that somewhat. They were best when eaten with a spoonful of jelly, sweet protection against the intense sodium bomb of meat and sauce. The mashed potatoes, on the other hand, seemed to have started from real potatoes rather than freeze-dried powder: They were actually lumpy, and I spotted bits of potato-skin starch. I later confirmed that the spuds had been made in the kitchen, as had the roasted chicken; the meatballs came from the freezer.

I finished up with a piece of Swedish apple cake, which, though certainly straight from a package, was the best thing I ate at Ikea Cafe. A flaky crust held apple and cinnamon, and more applesauce on the side added a nice hit of tartness.

As I finished my lunch, I watched families clear their trays and steel themselves to return to the floor for an afternoon of furniture selection. I needed a new couch, and I thought about joining the line. Instead, I headed down the stairs and out the door. If you're looking for a spot where you can find both a good bite and a good buy, you'd better shop around.

 
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