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Play it safe: The Bedford’s banking on menu that needs more sparks

Chef Mark Steuer stands entrance an old bank safe holding plate food. Sun-Times food critic PBruno reviews The Bedford for

Chef Mark Steuer stands at the entrance of an old bank safe holding a plate of food. Sun-Times food critic Pat Bruno reviews The Bedford for Weekend. The Wicker Park establishment is photographed on Wednesday, July 26, 2011 in Chicago. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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The Bedford ★★

1612 W. Division; (773) 235-8800;

Hours: Open for dinner and late-night fare at 5 p.m. daily.

Dinner menu prices: Snacks, soups and salads, $2.50-$6; main dishes, $10-$25; desserts, $8.

Try: Fava bean crostini, mussels, seasonal soup, pork chop.

In a bite: The Bedford serves modern contemporary American cuisine from what was once the lower level of a bank. The vault door is still in place and there is a wall of safe-deposit boxes in the lounge part of the restaurant. The overall atmosphere is modern and really quite nice. It’s become a magnet for the late-night crowd. The wine, beer and cocktail menu lists a range of wines by the bottle and glass (both are fairly priced). One of the more intriguing cocktails is the “Pisco Punch,” which comes as a single, a half bowl or a full bowl. Reservations are recommended. Not good for children.

KEY: ★★★★ Extraordinary;

★★★ Excellent; ★★ Very Good;

★ Good; Zero stars: Poor

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Updated: November 5, 2011 5:20PM

If an award were given for the most innovative use of vacated space, The Bedford would win, hands down.

How do you turn the lower level of a former bank into a restaurant? You do it with money, so to speak, and an eye for the dramatic. Instead of ripping the place apart, you work with what you have. The vault door (a piece of art on its own) is still hanging. And the wall of bronze safe-deposit boxes (burnished to a soft bronze glow) were left in place. The lounge part of The Bedford is fitted with plush and such and serves as an intimate, less noisy spot in which to enjoy cocktails and actually carry on a conversation. An occasional granite wall a couple of tucked-in fireplaces, a bar that stretches from here to there, a couple of banquettes, hi-top tables, two tops. There’s a lot to check out.

But it all starts with a simple wood entry door on Division Street, which is a few steps west of a massive CVS pharmacy, which took over that part of the street-level space vacated by a bank. Yes, part of The Bedford is below a new CVS. This is repurposing at its urban best.

The question is: Can you bank on the food at The Bedford? I would give that a qualified yes. The drift of the menu is contemporary American, but it’s not going to light up the night sky with culinary fireworks. I get suspicious when a menu gets cute by using headings like “to snack on,” “from the soil,” and “from the sea.” OK, we get it.

The “seasonal soup special” one night was gazpacho. Smart idea for a sultry summer night. Refreshing, lightly chilled, a spicy aftertaste, with a dice of melon as a garnish adding more enjoyment.

From “to snack on,” we schose fava bean crostini. The three ovals of grilled bread were given a smear of fava bean puree (would there had been more than a smear, though). A fluff of frisee was spackled with pickled red onion. An innovative harissa vinaigrette gave all of that a light dressing.

Off of “from the sea,” we harvested a bevy of mussels, PEI (Prince Edward Island), the cream of the crop. Those plump and pink beauties got all steamed up with garlic, chiles and onions. Excellent. Using the emptied-out shells as a cup, I scooped up a good portion of that tasty nectar.

Not so impressive was the potato gnocchi. Why restaurants insist on making gnocchi almost as big as the potato that went into making them puzzles me. The gnocchi were too fat, too gummy (even the pan searing after boiling didn’t help). On the other hand, the company the gnocchi kept — mushrooms, spring peas, slivers of carrot and a frizzle of cheese (ricotta salata) — saved the dish. I would put those veggies and that cheese with a quality short pasta (out of the box) and make it work.

And “from the pasture,” it was a “bone-in, Gunthorp Farm pork chop.” As thick as a brick, the chop rode atop what the menu noted as “German potato salad,” which was totally apart from what I know as German potato salad. But there were coins of potato and, I believe, turnip glazed with a mustard gastrique. The chop on its own was excellent in that it was cooked to perfection (not the least bit dry) right down to the bone.

Dessert choices were nothing much. We did try the cinnamon-dusted doughnut holes. A bit heavy at best, though the coffee cream cheese dipping sauce was very good. And the Black Dog blackberry gelato was refreshing.

The Bedford has a separate late-night menu (and it does draw a young and restless late-night crowd, especially on the weekend) that features burgers, chicken wings, frites and deviled eggs.

Pat Bruno is a local free-lance critic and author. Listen to Pat Bruno talk about food and wine at 6:23 and 10:23 p.m. Tuesdays and 7:53 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays on WBBM-AM (780) News Radio.

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