Bona Sera Cafe reviewed
by Lee Lawrence
The motto of Ypsi's Bona Sera Cafe is "bad women cooking." The menu promises "twisted classics for your pie hole." And the owners--founders of an underground supper club that preceded this brick-and-mortar establishment on Michigan Avenue--prefer to use the pseudonyms "Bad Fairy" and "Wonder Woman."
Wordplay like that makes the persnickety English major inside me want to scream. And unfortunately it's not just words Bona Sera messes with but culinary traditions--neither to good effect.
First, though, let's talk about what the bad women do right. Much of the menu and many of the specials--particularly the straightforward dishes--are tasty.
The "Fruity Goat Salad" we had our first visit delighted us with wedges of deliciously chewy roasted beet tossed with grapefruit sections, pistachios, goat cheese, arugula, and a vanilla-scented vinaigrette. Another salad--"Crunch Time"--paired thinly sliced apple and fennel with mixed greens and a lemony vinaigrette to nice effect. That evening's sesame peanut noodle salad wasn't exceptional, but another rendition a few weeks later proved the meal's hit: a perfect amalgamation of slippery al dente noodles, crispy vegetables, and nutty, spicy sauce. A special salad of cold, sliced duck breast and "flayed" beets with truffle vinaigrette, though fine, paled in comparison.
Back to those messed-with traditions. Bona Sera offers what the menu calls banh mi sandwiches, but they're so different from that Vietnamese invention they can scarcely be called even an approximation or an interpretation. Bringing together Vietnam's French colonial and native traditions, a banh mi sandwich is one of the world's great subs--a crusty baguette filled with Asian-inflected grilled meats and/or cold cuts, pickled carrot and daikon, cilantro, mayo, chiles or hot sauce, and sometimes cucumber and scallion.
Bona Sera's banh mi replaces the baguette with a soft, flattened steamed Chinese bun, bread too flabby to maintain its integrity against the onslaught of the filling. A carrot-daikon slaw lacks the sweet, vinegary sparkle of the traditional pickle and offers no counterpoint to the meat, which, in the case of the chicken, was disappointingly
bland. The shrimp option was much better, while the Italian porchetta (roast pork) version, dressed with fennel-apple slaw and a fennel vinaigrette, would have been fabulous on a crusty roll and relieved of the wildly inappropriate "banh mi" moniker. Part of Bona Sera's shtick is to reinvent or "twist" classics, but why mess with perfection unless you can improve it?
Another confused dish is the tom yum shrimp and grits. The spicy flavors of the Thai hot and sour soup sauce shrimp piled atop cheddar-y grits dotted with pancetta and balsamic vinegar were tasty in a bizarre way. I found the crunchy pancetta cubes, strongly cured with Italian seasonings, jarring, however, and much better paired with the porchetta version we tried on our second visit.
Bona Sera's poutine special also played with Canada's signature junk food, but this time in a way that made sense. Sturdy potato gnocchi replaced the fries, and a duck confit reduction the brown gravy, with shreds of ricotta salata standing in for the cheese curds. A sprinkling of duck cracklings garnished the bowl. Considering the ingredients, I found the dish surprisingly light on flavor, but everyone else at the table enjoyed it.
Other specials that evening also found willing partners. My dad slurped up a bowl of capellini and meatballs as if he hadn't eaten that day, and a plate of "surfy turfy"--sliced, beautifully grilled medium-rare flank steak mated with three jumbo sea scallops on a bed of greens and roasted potatoes--comforted my mother. These simple dishes highlighted the chefs' use of high-quality ingredients and the great care they take in preparing them. Unfortunately, the specials we chose another evening--potentially more nuanced or demanding--pleased no one. Truffled ricotta and beet lasagna arrived overly saturated by a sea of acidic tomato sauce and texture-less gluten-free macaroni and cheese proved completely devoid of salt and flavor.
Desserts tend toward homey sweets--a "Lil' Netty" oatmeal sandwich cookie, large triangular flattened brownies more cookie than cake, warm apple bread pudding pleasantly drowning in melting whipped cream, and salted caramel gelato--which you should never leave without finishing.
Bona Sera takes over the short-lived J. Neil's Mongolian Grille at the corner of Washington. A huge space, with two walls of windows, it feels rather cavernous in its present rendition, with simple tables and chairs and a few rococo sofas barely filling the expanse. Topped by a mammoth stainless steel hood, the open kitchen brings some life into the restaurant, a counterpoint to the bored and rather indifferent counter girl who takes your order. The chef-owners used a kickstarter.com campaign and their own savings to open Bona Sera, and I would guess it's still a work in progress. Perhaps another campaign and a liquor license would bring in a cozy bar and a few improvised dividers to break up the room, and a focus on what they do best would bring forth a menu both tasty and exactly written.
Bona Sera Cafe
200 W. Michigan Avenue
Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Sun. & Mon.
Salads and sandwiches $4.95-12.95, grits $4.95-7.95, specials $9-$15, sides $2.50-3.25
[Originally published in December, 2012.]