For all its exalted status as the only Swedish restaurant in San Francisco, Abbsolutly is pretty low-key. Until you look at the menu, it passes completely for just another bar — albeit a fairly handsome one — on the bleak motel strip of Lombard. Its interior is wood-paneled without being tacky, and mercifully free of the accretion of kitsch that plagues many another restaurant. There are no plush booths or lavish atmospheric touches — just wooden tables, mirrors, and short candles — but the place has a cozy feel nevertheless. Still, it seems many people miss the subtle “this is a restaurant” cues, and only show up after the kitchen closes, to enjoy the non-Swedish liquor/TV/jukebox aspects of the establishment, or even the quesadilla-etc. bar menu.
It's their loss.
Abbsolutly's Swedish menu is not extensive, but it's solid. It's divided into open-faced sandwiches and entree platters, each of which reprises a few core delicacies in various combinations. The S.O.S. platter ($7.95; $9.95 with akvavit) is named for, and comprises, sill (herring), ost (cheese), and schnapps (akvavit) — rather robust portions of the first two, with a clump of salad greens for balance, and a delicious chilled shot of the last.
There are three types of marinated herring on the plate: Matjes, which is sweetly vinegary, with a hint of warm spice; another herring bluely peeking through a tart sour cream sauce; and a third, delicately mustardy one. In all three cases the high-fat, skin-on fillets have been firmed up nicely by a bit of curing, and none has the strong fishy flavor dreaded by so many. The Matjes is the tastiest of the trio, but the assortment gives a satisfying perspective on the nature of herring. The ost, meanwhile, takes the form of crumbly, mild blue cheese, not outstanding on its own but providing a nice counterweight to the sweet, marine flavor of the herring. This, like the other entrees, comes with crisp brown flatbread, a perfect vehicle for the cheese and a good way to cleanse the palate between herring samples. A number of tiny boiled potatoes are also provided, making this a hearty meal on a single plate.
Still, if the S.O.S. platter doesn't seem big enough, or various enough, there is always the option of the smorgasbord platter ($12.95; $10.95 sans akvavit). In addition to the herring, cheese, akvavit, salad greens, and potatoes of the former, the smorgasbord includes several slices of wonderful smoked salmon, mild sausage, Swedish meatballs, an egg topped with Kalles caviar, and lingonberry relish. The salmon is velvety and sweet, the sausage plump and meaty, the meatballs tender and robustly flavored. It's a pleasure to see Kalles caviar included, this is a true taste of Sweden: The fish eggs, sold in a squeeze tube, are incorporated in a spicy, pungent, spreadable mixture.
Meat-and-potatoes folk may appreciate the simple meatballs and potatoes platter ($7.95), which comes drenched in spicy brown meatball gravy — a filling, simple, meaty meal. This dish goes very well (well, I guess they all do) with the house Kronenburg beer. Other entrees include a tomato-shrimp soup ($6), resplendent with dill and topped with cream — a soup that warms the bones while reminding one that the cold, dark sea isn't far away; and a fried-eggs-and-hash platter ($7.95).
Additionally, the open-faced sandwiches (most manageably eaten with a fork) offer a somewhat less overwhelming quantity of food, incorporating the same basic palette of ingredients. There is a smoked salmon sandwich ($7.50), a meatball sandwich ($6.50), and a terrific hot sandwich with ham, melted cheese, tomato, and mustard ($5.50).
Dessert is stunning at Abbsolutly. In fact, it's not a bad idea, if you're dining elsewhere in the neighborhood, to come to Abbsolutly after your meal just for the dessert. There are only two choices. The appelpaj ($3.75, pronounced “apple pie”) is a deep-dish delight of buttery, rich apple pieces on the point of melting, served with a creamy vanilla custard: an oasis of comfort. But even this is outdone by the Swedish pancakes ($4.50), luscious, crepelike, thin pancakes with a marvelous tender crispness, slathered in tart red lingonberry sauce and cool sweet whipped cream. It's one of those perfect desserts that makes you, lost in its pleasures, momentarily ponder how to reconfigure your life to include as much of it as possible.