Autumn glowed glorious in Michigan. Despite the pandemic, despite the volatile election, despite the world’s general malaise, the summer’s hard, white, overhead glare gave way to amber warmth. The trees and wild grasses, outlines sharpened against horizons sometimes sky blue, sometimes swirling with clouds the color of bruised figs, blazed brilliantly. It was a season of natural beauty that moved and soothed.
My spouse and I bookended this memorable fall with visits to Bellflower, one of our area’s newest restaurants. Located on Pearl St. across from the bus station in Ypsilanti, it’s hosted in a former Michigan Bell exchange outpost–one of the inspirations behind the restaurant’s name. Bellflower is also the common name for campanula, a plant family whose members sport bell-shaped blooms in blues and whites.
On our first visit to Bellflower, returning home from a quick trip up north in mid-September, we heard this origin story from Mark Maynard, one of the restaurant’s three owners and a longtime Ypsi booster on his blog, markmaynard.com. Masked, yet friendly, Maynard was making the rounds of patrons sitting in the handsome enclosed and exposed patios that open up off the side of the building. (Then, as now, state orders forbade indoor seating.) He and Wurst Bar co-owner Jesse Kranyak bought the burned-out building in 2016 and spent four years renovating it. (Upstairs are a cluster of small studio spaces called Landline Creative Labs.) “But do you have any restaurant experience?” I asked, surprised, internal eyes wide, continuing the question silently, “opening in the middle of a pandemic, what are you thinking?” He reassured us that he was learning quickly, aided by Kranyak and chef Dan Klenotic, late of Sava’s and Wurst Bar.
That evening’s meal was a wonderful cap to our early fall getaway. There’s a slight Louisiana flair to Klenotic’s changing menus, necessitated by lunch’s po’boys (more on that later), so we eased into dinner with cocktails and briny rounds of raw and roasted oysters, skipping options of pimento cheese, boudin, and red beans and rice. The roasted oysters arrived alongside a mustardy-dressed salad, and wrapping the hot bivalve and its garlicky breadcrumbs into a cool lettuce leaf made for a heady bite. Sweet sea scallops, given an Asian twist with lime slaw and peanuts, followed for my husband, and I enjoyed pork collar, grilled, with greens and roasted potatoes. We had arrived home, but the vacation wasn’t over.
With autumn closing, we snuck in another visit on Halloween evening. Covid, of course, had been surging in Michigan, so although the stylish dining room was open, I insisted we sit outside in the uncovered patio, bundled in layers and under the distant flames of a propane heater. With my brother joining us this time, we piled on the appetizers. Roasted oysters again tempted us, as did cured salmon and warm roasted beets in a snazzy dress of ginger beer and butter. A mistake brought us smoked salmon cakes instead of the cured fish, but such a happy error! What had read as a ho-hum offering surprised us with its rich, buttery flavor, finely complemented by tart caperberries and herbaceous celery leaves. The cured salmon also quickly surfaced, and we were again pleasantly surprised, this time by presentation–the fish chopped tartar-like with hardboiled duck egg rather than sliced.
Hot Fish/Whole Fish, a fried, unfilleted specimen, sometimes red snapper, sometimes white bass, was outstanding. The crispy skin dazzled the tongue with fiery spice without overwhelming the moist, meaty chunks of flesh, and okra and cooling pickles provided contrast to the center element. Sauteed scallops, this time a riff on biscuits and gravy with collard greens, were fine, but less inspired than the earlier version. Chunks of chicken thighs took on the Asian cloak this time, sauteed with loads of peanuts and less hot pepper than advertised.
We were all intrigued by dessert–a chocolate cake lightly sweet and imbued with more than a passing acquaintance with the saltshaker; likewise, the puddle of softly whipped cream sitting next to it. We enjoyed the dish, but others might have described it as dessert usurped.
Right now, lunch is a to-go menu of po’boys and sandwiches served on Klenotic’s homemade milk bread. (Strictly speaking, you can eat your sandwich inside, but there’s no service and the food is wrapped for take-out.) The large chalkboard near the entrance lists the options, and you can watch the cooks prep for dinner and make your order at the open kitchen that lines the walk back to the dining room.
When discussing what to serve for lunch, the owners settled on po’boys as an unfilled need in the Ypsi area, and the consequent demand for oysters and shrimp drove the southern bent of the dinner menu. While the sandwich loaves were just too much bread–not an uncommon problem with po’boys–neither my husband nor I could complain about their fillings. Delicious fried breaded ‘oysters–or in my husband’s case, oysters and shrimp–spilled out in generous numbers. There’s also a vegetarian option, a chicken boudin sandwich, and a muffaletta.
In the darkness of a colder season, those visits to Bellflower stand out, a bright bloom in a somber year. Since October, the restaurant has offered an intriguing list of wines for sale on its website. Beginning election week, it included a few badly need cocktails and a set weekly dinner to go.
As the unenclosed patio option ends, the owners intend to continue offering limited dining room seating as long as the health department allows it; they will then have to decide whether to expand take-out to more options or to include the entire dinner menu. However you can experience Bellflower, I hope you do. And I hope Bellflower, like its perennial namesake, survives to rebloom again and again.
209 Pearl St., Ypsilanti
Mon.-Sun: lunch 11 a.m.-5 p.m.,
dinner 5-10 p.m. Sun.: 5-9 p.m.
Lunch sandwiches: $7.95-$10.95, Dinner appetizers: $6-$14,
Dinner entrees: $14-$48.