Think I hear someone plucking away on a guitar in the dark, right here on the street. Ah yes. He's sitting at a table under an umbrella outside this li'l ol' house. Sign says "Vinbladh's Swedish Fusion Cafe."
This is on Park Boulevard, near Adams Avenue. Turns out the bungalow has been standing here since 1906. Wow. Just think, 101 years. If only these green and white walls could talk. I count eight black-mesh tables on the patio (must have been the front garden way back when), straw chairs, and square black umbrellas, plus flaming torches on poles at the corners. Crickets sing away somewhere in the bushes.
People at these outside tables seem to be waiting, not eating. Then I see a chalkboard sign on the house's steps. "LIVE: WENDY BAILEY. DAVE BERRY."
"You Dave?" I ask the guitar player.
"You eaten here before?"
"No. This is my first gig. Just warming up. But give it a try."
Believe I will. I like the feeling here. People flopping down, talking, dogs...this big Golden Retriever pooch comes wagging his tail among the tables. Everybody stops to give him a pat. Name's Wahoo, or is it Oahu? Up the steps and inside, it's plain but nice. Swedish-style, I guess, with varnished blond plank floors and cream walls. Some guys are setting up on a small stage at the back, but the brightest thing in the room is the pastry display. Ooh. Really sophisticated stuff. I mean, art you can eat. Also, sophisticated prices. A lot seem to be around the $5 mark.
Guy in a chef's jacket comes up.
"Can I help?" he says and gives me a menu. Breakfast on one side, lunch on the other. Breakfast was over at 3:00 p.m., except for four "Swedish food pies," which are like quiche. For breakfast, you can get enticing Swedish-sounding dishes like Swedish pancakes with berries ($6, or $8.50 with two scrambled eggs). Or smoked salmon scramble for $8. Or scrambled egg "sandwiches" with spinach, asparagus, and Gruyère cheese ($6), or those "Swedish food pies" ($7). Lordy...there's also a "Pancoker" -- baked Swedish eggs and bacon -- with lingonberry preserves ($7).
I turn the page over to "lunch" (which is also dinner). Looks like it's all sandwiches: Swedish-style open-faced or "classic," closed-faced, and a couple of salads.
I'm trying to think: what is Swedish food again? Muesli. Smorgasbords. Reindeer. Lingonberries. Salmon. Meatballs. IKEA. Wait...that's furniture. ABBA. Oops, music. Björn Borg? Ball-whacker the girls always compared me to. Unfavorably. Oh yes, and mulled wine. But mostly, you think of healthy food. Guess I'll try the most Swedish thing. I skip the salads (one's mixed greens with mozzarella for $6, the other's spinach with feta, $6.50). I skip the "classic" sandwiches -- salami, ham, beef, each $7 -- and look at the four Swedish-style open-faced sandwiches. There's a choice of roasted turkey, veggie (each $7), Scandinavian salmon (that looks interesting -- it comes with herb cream cheese, spinach, avocado, red onion, and dill), or Swedish meatballs (each $8).
Hmm. Swedish meatballs? Can't get much more Swedish than that. Comes with spinach, roma tomato, red onion, and butter. With a side of lingonberry preserves.
But here's the touch I like. The bread. You choose from the usual suspects, sourdough, multigrain. Or -- drum roll, please -- how about "rosemary olive oil bread"? Sounds perfect for meatballs.
I order the sandwich, and a coffee (only $1.25), and head outside. People are wandering up for the show. Mary -- she's the talent booker who's managing the entertainment -- has set up a table where she can nab you and get the $4 entry fee.
I slurp the coffee. Really good. Smooth, unburned roasting. I know the Swedes think they have the best coffee in the world. They could be right. Then Shane -- he's the chef -- brings my sandwich out. It comes with crinkly chips and marinated cucumber slices and a pot of lingonberry jam. They advise you to eat this thing with a knife and fork, or the meatballs'll kinda start poppin' out every which way. And, first bite...I mean, it looks standard light, summery fare, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions...but the savory meatball, the touch of lingonberry, and, above all, the rosemary olive oil bread click this up to a totally beautiful combo. I think they must put olive oil on the bread as well as in it. Oh, man. Can't decide if it's better all savory or with the lingonberry touch.
I get to talking with Shane. Yes, he was named after the movie, that classic Western. No, he hasn't seen it. He's a certified pastry chef from -- wow -- South Africa. Man, I'd love to try some of those things he's baked, on display in the cabinet. Some are South African recipes, like the almond chocolate triangles and coconut balls.
"These may be the first South African coconut balls in America," says Shane.
What the heck? Started off with meatballs, let's end up with coconut balls.
Actually, just one is $1.35. All I can afford. But boy, this is a 10. To die for! Coconut, caramel? Some wicked liqueur? I'd ask Shane, but by this time David Berry's singing his heart out. Song he wrote called "I Don't Mind."
I wouldn't mind, staying, that is -- but, sigh, buses to catch. Ooh. See they do singer-songwriter wannabe nights. Hmm. Could bring Carla and sing her my upcoming hit, "Carla, Do You Care That I'm Carless?"
[2009 Editor's Note: Vinbladh's has since closed.]