Valhalla on Earth

Photo by Keith MayIn a culinary ranking of nations, Sweden would fall somewhere between exquisite French delicacies and bland English slop. Only meatballs, pancakes, gingerbread cookies and herring—and Absolut vodka, which doesn't really count as food unless you're Norwegian —have made their way to tables outside the Land of the Midnight Sun. What has truly brought Sweden international distinction, cuisine-wise, is its smörgåsbord.

Originally an array of appetizers, the “sandwich table” (literally translated) grew to a megacourse in the 19th century. Besides its appearance in restaurants and country inns, smörgåsbords appear in Swedish homes only for such special occasions as Christmas, and then with special foods—most prominently, a hefty, salt-cured Christmas ham—and a new name: julbord, or “Christmas table.”

You can find an excellent example of the julbord at Gustaf Anders, located in the back of the South Coast Plaza Village. There's no mistaking that you're at the right place once you get there: a huge blue-and-yellow Swedish flag painted on a board proudly hangs to one side of the entrance. Owned by partners William Gustaf Magnuson and Ulf Anders Strandberg, the posh restaurant serves a blend of Continental and Swedish fare year-round but dedicates the holidays to the creation of an exquisite julbord.

Gorging on such Viking fare has become a holiday tradition in my family, headed by a Swedish mom and an American dad. Many of these tastes are admittedly acquired, but those of us who actually crave sill (pickled herring) eagerly count the days until our trip to Valhalla on Earth. The voyage doesn't come cheap, but it's only once a year. Each year, we come with a new strategy for maximizing food intake, and each year, we fail miserably, never quite eating as much as we'd like.

Unlike Sizzler's free-for-all salad bar/ buffet, the Gustaf Anders smörgåsbord must be approached systematically—the way stereotypical Swedes approach everything. The buffet should be worked slowly; multiple visits in a set order are called for.

Dedicate an inaugural mission to pickled herring with boiled potatoes. Gustaf Anders usually offers four kinds of this delicacy, including the traditional Matjes, mustard and curry—my favorite.

The second visit—cold fish and seafood—features some of the restaurant's most extravagant offerings: their famous gravad lax with a tangy dill mustard sauce, smoked salmon and a big bowl heaped with golden caviar. Two other dishes—one legendary, one notorious —star in round three, warm fish: the delicious Swedish anchovy-potato casserole Janssons Frestelse (Jansson's temptation) and the farty-smelling, gelatinous lutfisk, perhaps the foulest Scandinavian “food” export. To be fair, the reconstituted fish smells worse than it tastes. But if you're the adventurous type, you'll have to request the lutfisk; the owners wisely keep it well away from the buffet table where it would reasonably terrify almost everyone.

By this point, you may be ready to explode like a can of surströmming (ultrafermented Baltic herring, a delicacy more vile than lutfisk). It matters not. Proper smörgåsbord etiquette calls for several more trips—first, cold meats, then warm meat dishes, featuring Swedish meatballs. Finally, it's dessert time. Rice pudding is traditional, but consider a thin slice of Gustaf Anders' marzipan-covered princesstårta (princess cake).

Alcohol—and lots of it—is integral to such a meal and adds substantially to the already pricy bill. Gustaf Anders offers beer and many options of akvavit (flavored distilled liquor). Be sure to say “Skål,” the Swedish equivalent of “Cheers,” each time you take a shot.

Ultimately, it is regular old water—and not akvavit (which means “water of life”)—that is the meal's most important drink. With all the alcohol and salty, rich foods, be prepared to wake up several times during the night to drink water and refill the glass again and again. It's all part of the ritual. Skål!

Gustaf Anders, located at south coast plaza village, 3851 bear st., ste. b-21, santa ana, is open daily, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. N 5:30-9 p.m. (714) 668-1737. smörgåsbord available through dec. 30: lunch, $39; dinner, $49. FULL BAR. ALL MAJOR credit cards acccepted.

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