Fika & Smörgåsbords

Posted by on Nov 15, 2014 in blog, travel | No Comments

A series of travel posts documenting my experiences in beautiful Stockholm, Sweden from October 25-November 3, 2014. It has been broken up by the various and interesting aspects of the trip to provide inspiration and ideas for anybody that wants to visit one day.

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In this edition: All about good eats

No matter where you go, finding a decent meal is a fundamental human need. This is especially true for a self-proclaimed foodie that wants to experience new flavors all over the world. In Scandinavia however, meals come with a hefty price.

As a tourist living in a shared Airbnb apartment (free $25 Airbnb travel credit) with two other parties, it can be kind of hard to cook especially when the day is dedicated to sightseeing. Let’s face it, eating out in Stockholm is very expensive. Luckily, Stockholm has many street carts selling everything from hotdogs to kebabs in the sub-$13 USD range (39–89 SEK) and you can find McDonald’s Golden Arches just about everywhere.

Street food options are “cheap” eats in their purest form and I didn’t get the sense of quality from any of the carts. I was actually pretty unhappy with their hot dogs and burgers, forcing me to default to McD’s whenever we needed a budget bite to cure the hunger pangs. Local “Pizza Kebab” places are also common, offering thin crust pizza fusions and carved mystery meats for traveler friendly prices starting at 69 SEK ($10 USD). If you’re visiting the mother of IKEAs, their 5 SEK ($0.71 USD) hotdogs are a great option for a super affordable bite (and ironically reminded me most of home).

Alternatively, there are plenty of restaurants to choose from, and a theme that Deb and I quickly picked up on is the Swedish love of buffets. They are everywhere and at 99–179 SEK ($14–25 USD), “affordable” when compared to most sit-down restaurants where entrees can each exceed 189–245 SEK ($27–35 USD) or more.

Asian people taking pictures of Asian people taking pictures of their food.

As buffets go, Deb and I visited several, ranging from the bland and oily Asian kind to Herman’s, the very best vegetarian restaurant I’ve ever been to. Herman’s was actually a suggestion from our Airbnb host, who offered it as an option for special occasions. I admit that I started out a skeptic when I heard that a vegetarian buffet might be a good choice for a romantic birthday dinner, but after my first bite I was sold. Their buffet line options change throughout the night but some of the memorable bites we enjoyed were the eggplant lasagna, spicy olive pizza, and their vegetarian Thai curries. What’s more, Herman’s is located practically on a cliff so you get a full panoramic view of the city from Gamla Stan to Djurgården.

Protip: Skip the Chinese buffets and grab a 2-for-1 coupon to Herman’s in the city’s Restaurant Guide. Not only will you score what might be the most affordable meal in town, but it will also be one of the highest quality and healthy bites in the city.

View from Stallmästaregården

Another incredible local recommendation we enjoyed was the 175 SEK ($25 USD) breakfast buffet at Stallmästaregården Hotel. The food itself was excellent with a smörgåsbord of options (including such rare luxuries as eggs and juice!), but what put it over the top was the incredible lake and wilderness surroundings of the Royal Haga Park that makes it feel miles outside of the city.

Fika (coffee break) is a a major cultural and social institution across Stockholm. Swedes enjoy an average of 4.5 cups of coffee per day and there is no shortage of completely packed chain coffee shops around the city, all providing incredibly beautiful spaces in which to spend time with friends and colleagues. Basic coffees are about 25–29 SEK but can cost as much as 39 SEK or more for the fancy stuff, and it’s essential to pair a cup with a sweet pastry or slice of cake. Not all coffee shops are created equal, so it’s worth sampling several and definitely ask locals where their favorites are.

Winter is coming.

One of the biggest tourist traps in Stockholm has to be the Icebar at the Icehotel. From the outside, the novelty of drinking vodka-based shots at 19 degrees Fahrenheit (-7 degrees Celsius) seems like waste of 185–195 SEK ($27 USD). But when in Stockholm… Turns out it was a super unique and fun experience that I would gladly repeat! It’s little more than a walk-in freezer lined with clear ice blocks, but there’s something eskimo-like about plopping on a parka and freezing your ass off while sipping a watered-down cocktail, itself contained in a shot glass made of ice. As far as I’m concerned, it was a once in a lifetime experience and I really enjoyed the novelty of it.

It’s worth mentioning that alcohol is extremely expensive in Stockholm, perhaps prohibitively so. The government holds a monopoly on the taxation and regulation of alcohol. Since it is taxed based on alcohol content, liquor is very pricey and can even double or triple the price of a bottle. Needless to say, duty-free shopping on flights and ferries to/from Finland and Germany are popular with Swedes who want to stock up and get their drink on.

For Deb’s 30th birthday meal, our friend suggested that we give Restaurang Himlen a try. It was his favorite restaurant when he was in Stockholm so I booked a reservation online. Almost every nice restauranthas an amazing view and Himlen’s was no exception. Located 25th floors up, you get amazing views of the city looking across Sodermalm to the Katarina-Sofia area of the island. As you might expect, Himlen was not cheap and with two appetizers and two entrees, the bill came out to 1200 SEK with tip (~$171 USD).

Deb’s meal featured the potato pancake with Swedish bleakrow, lemon smetana, and pickled onion as her appetizer, followed by the baked lemonsole and Norway lobster with Jerusalem artichoke and brown butter with soy. In contrast, I decided to try the king crab and fried oyster with cucumber, melon, and avocado cream, followed by the poke belly with chanterelles, onions, celery puré and dill jus.

While we enjoyed our dishes overall, none were totally mind-blowing and service felt a little bit impersonal. Service (or lack thereof) was a recurring theme across every dining experience. Because no tip is generally expected when eating out, there is simply no expectation of service.

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Coop Dagliv, the IKEA of grocery stores.

When it comes to food, there’s really only one way to put together an affordable meal, and thank goodness that there is no shortage of grocery stores in Stockholm. In fact, the Coop Daglivs near our rental apartment was one of the best (and biggest) grocery stores I’ve ever been to. If there was an IKEA of grocery stores, this would bit it. Sitting on two floors, the sheer selection of items is expansive, with a full service deli and hot/cold bar, meat, and fish section, along with a huge bakery and produce area. For the “far from home”, Coop Daglivs has a great assortment of far flung ethnic ingredients to whip up a spicy curry or even an exotic fruit salad. Unfortunately most of our time was spent out of the apartment so our cooking opportunities were limited. However, this would definitely be my choice grocery store if I lived in the neighborhood.

Protip: When eating out, make lunch the big meal of the day. Prices are significantly cheaper than dinner for the same meal and hold up until about 3–4pm!

While Stockholm excels in many aspects of a good life, food culture and diversity seems unappreciated in Stockholm when compared to San Francisco (and the one aspect of the trip that disappointed this foodie). It’s generally very difficult to find a decent and healthy meal and I can only stand so long in a buffet line before I’m craving some good, clean flavors. Getting together with friends for a cocktail or two is an extremely expensive proposition and I’m a bit curious what local young professionals do to socialize after work. To any enterprising chefs out there, Stockholm could be a fantastic market to introduce new cuisines!

In the next post, I’ll share some insights and shed some international light on the local technology startup scene. Hint: it’s booming!

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