The 'Bad Women Cooking' at Bona Sera Cafe are making good food
A new sign at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Washington Street in downtown Ypsilanti proclaims "Bona Sera Cafe: Bad Women Cooking." Calling the food "twisted classics for your pie hole," the fusion-y menu includes flagship dishes of various cultures with playful changes designed to "kick it up a notch."
The cafe, open only since early July in the historic Kresge Building, is within a block of both the Deja Vu "showgirl club" and wholesome Beezy's. Somehow, the naughty-yet-nice environs seem to fit Bona Sera's edgy zeitgeist.
Under the pseudonyms of Wonder Woman and Bad Fairy, two of Bona Sera Cafe's seven partner-owners have spent the last several years developing creative ideas and jaw-dropping menus through their popular underground Bona Sera Supper Club. The success with the Supper Club led Bad Fairy and Wonder Woman to dream of starting a food truck business — until they learned food trucks are prohibited under Ann Arbor's zoning.
When the women landed a temporary spot at Ypsilanti's Mix Marketplace last winter, they combined alter egos to create Bad Woman Productions LLC, and pieces fell into place to open the Bona Sera Cafe.
With arresting art on the brick walls and a white settee in the middle of the orange tile floor, the large open space has wrap-around windows looking out on the gentrifying street scene at Michigan Avenue and Washington. The updated menu (with numerous daily specials) is posted in colored chalk handwriting on a large blackboard near the metal-siding encased counter where you order.
Open only a few weeks, Bona Sera is already turning out top-shelf food at bargain-rack prices.
Describing their approach to the food, chef/owner Annette Weathers (aka Bad Fairy) says, "We don't like to do just classics as they are. We will take something that is a standard and mess with it a bit. Or we will think of something that's a little more out of bounds." She cites the gnocchi poutine as an example of how they create a "twisted classic."
200 W. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti, MI
- Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
- Plastic: Mastercard, Visa
- Liquor: None
- Prices: Inexpensive, Entrees are $6.95-$12.45
- Noise level: Quiet (but they were not busy when we were there)
- Wheelchair access: Yes
Replacing the french fries, gravy and cheese curds of regular poutine, they substitute "a standard potato gnocchi, and the brown gravy sauce is a duck confit reduction. The 'cheese curds' are ricotta salata, and we put some duck cracklings on top of that. The gnocchi is cooked in boiling water, sauced with this gravy, finished with butter, then sprinkled with ricotta salata and duck cracklings. And it's served with bread and a green salad to cut the duck fat."
It sounds like something Glinda the Good Witch or Wayne Gretzky would enjoy tucking into.
Another "twisted classic" that I greatly enjoyed was the tom yum shrimp and grits. This dish involves "white hominy grits served with a spicy sauce, shrimp, scallions, pancetta, white cheddar cheese and balsamic reduction." It's a bowl of creamy new-age comfort food that melds the American with the Asian south as it hits all four corners of your mouth. Plump shrimp embedded in a beachhead of soft corn grits alternate cheesy and crisp bacon-y bites with sweet onion, spicy sauce, and dark balsamic mixed in. A combination that seems to contain all of the proscribed foods of Judaism into a single dish, it is sinfully delicious.
Speaking of which, my favorite line on the menu says "we support your decision to add Pork to anything — sdd $3." At the same time, vegetarians are definitely well-served at the Bona Sera Cafe. Except for the strictly meat dishes, almost everything comes with a vegetarian option or is already vegetarian.
Another popular classic that has been re-imagined the Bona Sera way is the porchetta banh mi. It is served with a choice of bread (either steamed bun or the traditional torpedo-shaped loaf), and slow roasted Italian pork (in place of more traditional pork belly and pate), along with fennel apple slaw and fennel vinaigrette. It's the Italian take on the Franco-Vietnamese classic. Annette Weathers told me they are currently outsourcing their steamed buns (more like a large fluffy sandwich wrap) to a bakery in Madison Heights, but are in conversation with the terrific Eastern Accents bakery in Ann Arbor to get a special version just for Bona Sera.
The salads (offered in both large and small sizes) were also noteworthy, especially the Fruity Goat with "pistachio, roasted beet, grapefruit, goat cheese, and grapefruit vanilla vinaigrette." I loved the large chunks of supremed pink grapefruit and creamy French goat cheese on fresh greens, but the warm vanilla accent in the vinaigrette was what really made this salad special.
The sesame peanut noodle salad with "Al Dente Noodles, peanut sauce, carrots, pea pods, sesame oil and peanuts" was a winner too. Its matchstick shreds of pea pods and carrots provide a powerful crunch against a backdrop of chewy noodles and rich savory peanut sauce undergirded with soy and ginger.
Although they're looking forward to providing small plate antipasti snacks for the wine bar that is planned to open soon downstairs, Bona Sera doesn't have a liquor license. But they are offering some appealing beverages like Watermelon-Basil Agua Fresca and other fresh juices, along with Bad Ass Woman Brew — a coffee roasted especially for them by local Roos Roast.
The Bona Sera Cafe has an authentic Italian gelato maker for seasonal frozen treats, and recently it has been turning out batches of popular salted caramel gelato. Salted Caramel turns out to be the perfect complement for a warm molten chocolate cake (whose secret ingredient is dates!).
The Bona Sera Supper Club started out raising money for local nonprofits, with monthly themes for the multi-course "secret" suppers that have included: Spring Breakdown, 1940s Jazz Supperclub, Night of 100 Drag Queens, ConFusion, and Bad Fairy Does Italy. Bad Fairy (aka Annette Weathers) says that they have started doing a growing number of catering events and plan to continue the secret suppers quarterly. But now the food will be made in the comfort of their own commercial kitchen.
My friend Nano, an Ypsi native and booster, always called her town "Hip-silanti." She'd be thrilled to see how Ypsilanti's welcoming community and more affordable prices are driving a renaissance in the creation of places people want to be. From community theaters and the Ugly Mug, to Beezy's and Corner Brewery, then Mix and Wurst Bar and Red Rock. And now Bona Sera.
They are mounting a strong challenge to Ann Arbor for the home of hipsta. I'm starting to wonder how A2 is going to kick it up a notch.
Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.