If a restaurant with prices in the $30s can fill the room regularly on Monday nights, that's a sign that it's doing something right. It seems Ypsilantians think so, and I agree.
The nearly two-years-old Bellflower has an eclectic menu with an emphasis on seafood. Out of 15 items on a recent list — it changes frequently — eight were from the watery deeps.
Despite the prices the vibe is unpretentious and friendly. It's one plain square room with a bar and paintings by local artist Jason Wright, plus a patio, an open kitchen, and an entrance area where patrons pick up sandwiches, also emphasizing seafood, from 11 to 4.
To describe Bellflower's food, I looked in a thesaurus for another way to say “love.” The closest I found was that I was “delighted” by chef Dan Klenotic's dishes. One exception was perhaps just a disagreement between him and me on whether certain items go together.
That exception was Buffalo skate cheeks. Buffalo sauce is too assertive for just about any fish, hiding its flavor. But the sauce was certainly authentic and vinegary, the cheese sauce was so good I brought home my leftovers, and the dilly potato salad made me want to change my mom's recipe.
Another starter was simply greens with a charred-lemon-green-garlic vinaigrette, with lots of pecorino, no need for any other vegetables. At the opposite end of the how-filling-do-you-want-your-starter spectrum, an outstanding vegan dish of red beans and rice was infused with both heat and the mellowness of coconut milk.
Among four entrées we tried, my favorite was shrimp étouffée. It's made with cream, which is not standard, but who can deny cream's magic properties? Combining it with smoked ham was genius on Klenotic's part; the result is both mellow and sharp.
Three big pork chops came with a complicated beef-tofu mapo sauce — yes, beef on pork, but it worked. The chops were crusty, with enjoyable bits of fat. A whole black sea bass looked perhaps too crusty and fried, but its crunchy coat did not overwhelm the delicate fish. It's probably a good thing that you have to go carefully to avoid the tiny bones; prevents wolfing.
Clams and gumbo is a big seller, according to co-owner Mark Maynard. (The third partner is Jesse Kranyak, who also owns Ypsi's Wurst Bar.) The sweet and juicy Manila clams are on the side, and the spicy sausage gumbo incorporates clam stock.
For dessert we had a fantastic crème brûlée that was, oddly, called “burnt custard” on the menu. Which term would make you more likely to order? In any case, the crisp and smoky crust was exactly what a crème brûlée is supposed to wear.
Bellflower's high prices are mitigated by the fact that portions are quite large. The skate cheeks are positioned as a starter but you get five of them, plus a big mound of potato salad. Rice and beans are similarly hefty. A starter could serve as an entrée, and sharing entrées is fine.
Wine prices are noticeably low, $7-$10 per glass, many bottles under $40. Sommelier Jenn Lucier seeks “known varietals from unknown regions,” Maynard said, and they are “aggressively priced because we want people to drink wine.” I enjoyed a vinho verde and a tangy French Vermentino, new to me, and also the Perennial Spark cocktail, with cava, hibiscus tea, and ginger and apricot liqueurs. It came in layers in a cone-shaped glass; the flavor changed as the pink sank from top to bottom.
There's also a list of six absinthes and some familiar and unfamiliar beers, plus three “teetotaler” drinks with Seedlip distilled non-alcohol spirits. A new British company, Seedlip offers spirits like Garden 108: “A floral blend of peas & hay...with a complex herbal base character of Spearmint, Rosemary & Thyme.” I have no doubt the Bellflower mixologists make it good.
The staff works with a dozen local farms, whose offerings determine the rapidly changing menu, posted to Facebook and Instagram daily. They have their own smoker and two bakers whose specialty is milk bread. They're bringing back a rye for the sandwich bar and a bread to complement their muffaletta. The sandwich board reads like New Orleans: fried oysters, fried shrimp, fried oysters and shrimp, chicken boudin, just $10-$13. Cold cuts include soppressata, mortadella, and capiccola.
I'm seldom in Ypsi, but I got the feeling that Bellflower, named after the Michigan native, is already a proudly beloved local institution.