The Cook and the Bear, set to open in West Hartford’s Blue Back Square on July 18, is a collaboration between Tyler Anderson of Millwright’s and Jamie McDonald of Bear’s Smokehouse.
By Ronni Newton
Tyler Anderson, a James Beard nominee and chef-owner of the upscale Millwright’s in Simsbury, loves barbecue and for years has wanted to open a barbecue restaurant and will see his dream become reality with the long-awaited opening of the Cook and the Bear in West Hartford’s Blue Back Square.
“I love traditional barbecue,” Anderson said. And he added that although animal fat and protein are no longer “the devil,” from a nutritional standpoint, most barbecue-focused restaurants are still geared toward and appeal more to men.
“I wanted to build a barbecue restaurant for everyone,” Anderson said. “The reason this concept was born is because barbecue appeals to a wide variety of people.”
Anderson also didn’t want to compete with Kansas-City-native-turned-local-barbecue-master Jamie McDonald, chef-owner of the critically-acclaimed and immensely popular Bear’s Smokehouse as well as Blind Pig Pizza and the recently-opened Chango Rosa in Hartford.
The two decided a few years ago to collaborate, and along with former Firebox chef Ed Jones III, and under the management of A.J. Aurrichio, Cook and the Bear will “feel like and look like barbecue, but be a bit different,” Anderson said.
“We’re very excited to finally open. It’s been a very long process,” McDonald said. “We’ve been practicing it now for over a year.”
Although the barbecue meat itself takes 18 hours to cook, the rest of the menu items will be cooked to order. Cook and the Bear is a sit-down restaurant rather than the traditional cafeteria-style of most barbecue restaurants, and there’s also a focus on in-season and locally-sourced ingredients.
Anderson said that many people – and he counts himself among them – are confused by the array of choices at a traditional barbecue restaurant. The portions are large, and the meal choice is a major commitment.
“We want to make it easier, offering smaller portions of different things,” he said, and the portions are made for sharing.
There’s also an emphasis on healthy and fresh foods, and 80 percent of the menu is gluten-free and 50 percent is vegetarian.
“Barbecue lends itself to being gluten-free, but we are taking vegetables to another level, with the food and the cocktails,” Anderson said.
Under the direction of talented bar manager Aaron Stepka, who spent years honing his skills and creativity in the Los Angeles area, Cook and the Bear will offer a unique menu of vegetable-infused cocktails and other “fun” beverages like rosé slushies and Kentucky bourbon poured straight from the smokey wooden barrel.
People expect more from food as well as drink these days, Anderson said. In addition to cocktails, the bar will feature 10 rotating draft lines with a selection of mainly New England craft beers.
After years of cooking in a more refined and elegant French style, Anderson said he’s really looking forward to cooking on a grill with wood and charcoal, with smoke. The broiler is imported from Spain and really instills a wood-fired flavor.
Some of the restaurant’s unique offerings will include barbecue-style pastrami and a pastrami sandwich that’s a tribute to New York’s legendary Katz’s Delicatessen specialty.
Cook and the Bear will also offer barbecued beets, preparing the beets like they would meat. “We hope it appeals to everyone. The smoke and the rub takes it to a new level,” Anderson said.
Other traditional, casual fare will have Anderson’s own “cheffy” twist. “Small twists on flavors people are comfortable with,” Anderson said.
Chicken wings will be roasted in a charcoal oven rather than fried, ribeye steak will be smoked, and quail will be grilled. Pulled pork will be prepared from New England-bred and acorn-fed pigs procured from Walden Hill Farm.
“People want to know where their food comes from and we want to tell them,” Anderson said.
There will be buttermilk biscuits on the menu, and a small but amazing selection of desserts prepared by Millwright’s pastry chef Kristin Eddy.
Although many of the same items served by Bear’s Smokehouse will appear on the menu, the restaurant will be totally different, Anderson said.
“Nothing is exactly the same as Bear’s. We will have brisket. We will have ribs but St. Louis style not spareribs.” The barbecue chicken will be uniquely Cook and the Bear’s. The menu will include macaroni and cheese, coleslaw, and baked beans, but all with a unique twist that make them different from Bear’s Smokehouse.
McDonald said his favorite item on the menu is the burnt-end sliders.
“For me personally it’s great. I like working with Tyler,” McDonald said. “I think we’re both going to be able to do some creative stuff here and bring something new to West Hartford.”
The decor of the Cook and the Bear is decidedly homey and casual, hearkening picnic-style with red and white gingham cloth napkins and mason jars of pickled vegetables lining the walls that will eventually find their way onto the plates. “Preserving the season,” Anderson said.
About a cord of wood, that will be replenished as it’s burned in the oven, lines a portion of one wall, split by a set of cowboy doors that separates the kitchen from the dining room. A large window allows diners to watch the smoking and grilling in progress.
The wooden tabletops were all handmade by Aurrichio’s dad, from fallen trees on his property.
The red and white gingham walls, as well a series of whimsical paintings and mural, are all hand-painted by Jones’ fiancé, chalk artist Jaime LaDucer. The mural’s scene is set in Hartford in the 1930s, with a train that travels into West Hartford and tells the story of the cook and the bear, building a treehouse and inviting the community to come together.
The style of the painting, and the message the artwork conveys, is inspired by “Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel” – one of Anderson’s favorite childhood books.
The kitchen’s smoker will be painted red, Anderson said, in a nod to Mike Mulligan’s “Mary Anne,” and the restaurant’s logo is also inspired by the iconic story.
“We built this place so families could be comfortable being here,” Anderson said, as well as to appeal to the late night crowd. The restaurant closes at midnight during the week and at 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and although the kitchen officially closes somewhat earlier, Anderson said it will stay open longer if people are eating.
He’s hoping to host other restaurant industry employees who are looking for someplace to go after they get out of work. “It’s the ultimate compliment when people in the business want to come to your restaurant,” Anderson said.
Anderson said that he and McDonald are really looking forward to being part of the West Hartford community, and although it’s taken longer than expected to open, that’s allowed for thousands of hours of consideration to go into refining the concept and the food and drink menu. The highly-successful pop-ups hosted at Millwright’s last year were also helpful.
Anderson said the menu will be constantly evolving, and he still plans to play around with “fun and interesting” late night offerings. “To have this many bones and not do ramen is a travesty,” he said, so ramen is likely to make an appearance.
The menu is also geared to appeal to a wide demographic, with a low price point compared to many area restaurants. Not including drinks, a full meal might cost about $20 per person with appetizers and small bites at $7 each, sides at $6 each, and meats at $9.50.
Cook and the Bear will open for dinner on Tuesday, July 18, and begin lunch service on Wednesday, July 19. Sunday brunch will start right away, on July 23.
“Ed and I are still working on the menu,” Anderson said of brunch, but brisket and smoked meats are a natural synergy with eggs.
The only thing Cook and the Bear will not offer right away is carry out. “Barbecue is perfect served the ‘day of,'” Anderson said, and he wants to get a handle on the demand by in-house diners before offering take-out, which will be added in the future.
The Cook and the Bear seats 90 inside the restaurant. Patio seating will likely wait for 2018, but there’s a retractable garage door in the corner that faces the Memorial/Raymond intersection, adding a feeling of outdoor picnic to the dining atmosphere when the weather permits.
“This is turning into an exciting corner,” Anderson said. He loves his neighboring restaurants – INDIA and Vinted – and is really looking forward to the opening this summer of the Delamar West Hartford Hotel. Chef Frederic Kieffer, of the Delamar’s Artisan restaurant, is also a good friend.
“I’m a big fan of being around other great restaurants. It creates a great dining environment,” Anderson said.
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