Chef Elize Jekabson hates the word "fusion" but allows that yes, that's what Bona Sera does. The menu has both a grits section, Southern-inspired, and a pasta section. The grits come with cheddar (normal) and pancetta (not so much). They can be topped with catfish — or with tom yum shrimp. Some of the pasta dishes are classic Italian, like a top-notch Bolognese — and then there's mac and cheese. Jekabson prefers "colorful comfort" as the Bona Sera slogan.
The least expensive main dish is about as fused as you can get, an Italian version of Korean bibimbap: Bi Bada Bing.
All this is the product of co-owners Barb Marcotte's and Annette Weathers's imagination, augmented by some recipes from Marcotte's Italian grandmother and a cold beet soup from Jekabson's Latvian heritage.
I found an inordinate amount of care and thoughtfulness in each dish, and even down to details, like over-sized napkins, that show someone is thinking about the customer.
Most mains come with a little salad; ask for the mellow-tart grapefruit-vanilla vinaigrette, although the lemon vinaigrette is also more than fine. Dressing is served on the side, another considerate touch.
Starters are on the large side. I loved the mushroom flatbread with black truffle cheese, super fresh greens, and truffle vinaigrette — the fungi are just lightly and lovingly sauteed. Tomato soup was thick and seasoned like a fresh tomato sauce for pasta. Potato-leek soup was decidedly creamy, with little circles of scallions, but not so thick as to derail the meal. Chickpea fritters were too crisp, IMO, but their Sriracha mayo was top-notch.
Pastas, such as a stand-out meaty Rigatoni Bolognese, are sized as main dishes rather than as smaller first courses in the Italian manner. Most Bolognese recipes specify milk for simmering, but I suspect Jekabson of using cream, judging by both flavor and the pale orange hue of the sauce. Bacon Mac is appropriately al dente and incorporates four cheeses, but they are far outshone by the bacon.
Mains range from the Bi Bada Bing with porchetta, brown rice and an over-easy egg to shepherd's pie (dressed up with Dijon) to scallops, salmon, and Wagyu sirloin. The Tuxedo Scallops — firm yet melt-in-mouth — are served with beautiful "forbidden black rice," so-called because it's more expensive to grow than brown varieties; it's also known as "emperor's rice." As Jekabson makes it, it's chewy and fruity with a chili-lime sauce that perks everything up.
Weathers and Marcotte may have a thing for scallops, as do I — they are served atop grits and also appear as starters, with a sumac-lemon crème fraîche.
As pork loin is something I often roast at home (so easy, so piggy), I am always curious to see what real chefs do with pork tenderloin, a different cut but also lean. At Bona Sera they marinate and grill it to a tender perfection, and serve it with mashed potatoes flavored with lemon and thyme — an inspiration.
My only disappointment at Bona Sera was the Eggplant Roulade, with the eggplant rolled around a kitchen sink's worth of healthy ingredients. Eggplant needs to be cooked within an inch of its life for its goodness to be revealed.
Desserts here are glorious, from a $3 salty caramel gelato, tasting like a very slightly burnt dulce de leche, to a rummy, chewy bread pudding with gobs of whipped cream, to a bittersweet chocolate pot de crème with more gobs of cream. I shouldn't have to praise a restaurant for using real whipped cream, but you'll sometimes see Reddi-Wip ("only 15 calories per serving") even in a restaurant with aspirations. Bona Sera is not one of them.
On Saturday and Sunday, Bona Sera offers a brunch menu featuring mimosas with $1 refills and also a Bloody Mary bar. Dishes include a corned beef Benedict on housemade Irish soda bread with Hollandaise. This fall, brunch has starred a gravy made with locally foraged mushrooms. Like I said, details.
Bona Sera is generous with its half-off beer and wine happy hour, as it lasts from 5 to 7 and happens on Saturday too, not just weekdays. I snuck under the wire for an excellent, mineral-y Sauvignon Blanc and a gin and tonic made with house-infused berry tea. Each cocktail is created by the staff and the drinks menu changes seasonally.
Bona Sera is unpretentious in its decor, with widely spaced bare tables and a tin ceiling, but floor-length windows on two sides, looking on downtown Michigan Avenue, create the feeling that something special is happening inside. Which is true.
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