A few years ago, Tyler Anderson, the James Beard Foundation Award-nominated chef and owner of Millwright’s in Simsbury, was toying with the idea of opening a barbecue restaurant. But in 2013, Jamie “The Bear” McDonald opened the first Bear’s Smokehouse in Windsor (he has since opened locations in Hartford and South Windsor), and Anderson knew the plan had to be adjusted.
“Jamie came along with Bear’s and I think that people are very loyal to their barbecue, and once somebody’s in town doing it really well — it wasn’t the sort of thing where I wanted to compete with Jamie,” Anderson says. “So, it was sort of like if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
Join him Anderson did.
First it was for a series of farm dinners and then a weekly Bear’s popup at Millwright’s. These casual collaborations grew into The Cook & The Bear, the much-talked-about West Hartford restaurant from McDonald and Anderson that opened over the summer.
The Cook & The Bear
50 Memorial Road, Blue Back Square, West Hartford; 860-595-3345, thecookandthebear.com
Price range: Snacks $5.75-$8.50 (bacon-wrapped dates $6.25, burnt end sliders $10.25), from the smoker $8-$24.50 (beets $8, brisket and pastrami $11, half-chicken $9.50, full chicken $18), sides $4.75-$7 (buttermilk biscuits $5.75, broccoli casserole $6.50, mac and cheese $7), desserts $5-$6 (banana pudding and panna cotta $5)
Hours: Mon.-Wed. noon-11 p.m. (kitchen closes at 10), Thu. noon-midnight (kitchen closes at 10), Fri. & Sat. noon-midnight (kitchen closes at 11), Sun. noon-10 p.m. (brunch menu until 3; kitchen closes at 9)
Ambiance: Hip, sleek and modern, with cool and unique design elements, including murals painted by a local artist. It’s good place to meet up with friends.
Service: Friendly and well coached. Our server had a quirky sense of humor. She explained the cocktails and helped us navigate a complicated ordering system that the restaurant was trying out after opening but has since dropped in favor of a traditional ordering procedure.
Food: High-end barbecue dishes made with locally sourced items are at the heart of the menu, but there are also plenty of vegetarian options, as well as gluten-free items. Fans of either Millwright’s or Bear’s will find plenty to enjoy.
The restaurant’s opening was delayed because Anderson had to leave Connecticut for eight weeks for the filming of the new season of Bravo’s Top Chef, which will premiere on Dec. 7 at 10 p.m. (see story). During that time, anticipation for the restaurant grew in the foodie world. And after a recent visit, I’m happy to report the hype is not unfounded.
The Cook & The Bear is owned by McDonald, Anderson and A.J. Aurrichio. Both McDonald and Anderson are involved with the menu and they’ve also brought on executive chef Eddy Jones, formerly of Firebox.
A barbecue place with a twist, The Cook & The Bear is a sleek bar and restaurant with a robust cocktail program and emphasis on craft beer. The menu is filled with locally sourced ingredients and slow-smoked cuts of meat you won’t find at most other barbecue joints.
Anderson explains that the new restaurant doesn’t offer the same cuts as Bear’s — except for the brisket, because they couldn’t leave the quintessential barbecue delicacy off the menu.
In addition to brisket, you’ll find pastrami, served in thick, smoky cuts, and smoked half-chicken served with chimichurri sauce. Inspired by Argentinian cooking, the bird is smoked and then grilled, and is one of the best chickens you’re likely to find in Connecticut. Other signature dishes include bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with chorizo, a fusion of meat and fruit, and the burnt end sliders, burnt ends stuffed inside a potato roll.
Although meat is a focus at the restaurant, the place is about far more than meat alone.
“I’ve always loved cooking with vegetables; it’s my favorite medium to cook with,” Anderson says.
Items on the menu are marked “v” for vegetarian and “gf” for “gluten free,” and there are plenty of both. I visited the restaurant with two vegetarians, both of whom loved the place.
The smoked beets, pickled and topped with the Mystic Cheese Co.’s frost cheese, were as crave inducing as the brisket, as was the broccoli casserole, and I say that as someone who almost never orders anything with the word “broccoli” in it.
Other vegetarian dishes with less emphasis on the vegetable part include the must-try buttermilk biscuits with sesame-honey butter. The biscuits are made by Kristin Eddy, the pastry chef at both Millwright’s and Cook & Bear and are reminiscent of the Millwright’s biscuits. Though they’re made with a different recipe, they are served with the same sesame-honey butter.
The mac and cheese is made with a mix of American cheese, blue cheese and raclette, giving the dish more bite and just a hint of good funk, but not so much that it’s overpowering.
The restaurant itself is open with a visual flair that evokes an old-school establishment, speakeasy or even a diner. There are red-and-white awnings over the entrance outside. Inside has polished wood tables, and one wall is covered with stacked wood used to fuel the smoker. There’s also a bar with plush red seats.
Speaking of the bar, the cocktails are a definite strength. Under the direction of bar manager Aaron Stepka, Anderson says the bartenders work like cooks, preparing all syrups, bitters and other flavoring agents from scratch. The Paloma Fizz, with tequila and egg white, and twists on classics such as the Negroni and Manhattan, were impressive. The draft beer list was not large, but was full of quality, with offerings from Kent Falls and New England Brewing Co.
For dessert, the portions and prices are kept small, because Anderson says that after consuming large amounts of barbecue, no one wants a huge dessert. The banana pudding with smoked chocolate and panna cotta topped by a warm apple crisp are both worth saving room for and a bargain at $5 each.
At first glance the culinary alliance between Anderson and McDonald might seem an odd one. Though equally celebrated in their own rights, Millwright’s and Bear’s are about as different as two excellent restaurants can be. Millwright’s is one of Connecticut’s most celebrated high-end spots and offers a seven-course tasting menu with a “pre-dessert” course, while at the original Hartford location of Bear’s, the condiment table had a sink for guests to wash up after overenthusiastically indulging in barbecue. But the marriage between these two spots proves a happy one and The Cook & The Bear incorporates elements from both Millwright’s and Bear’s while emerging as a distinct destination that is sure to become a favorite in the state.