Where there's smoke, there's barbecue - at least in Blue Back Square. West Hartford's The Cook and the Bear restaurant, the highly anticipated collaboration between Millwright's chef-owner Tyler Anderson and Jamie McDonald of Bear's Smokehouse, will officially open Tuesday, July 18, at 5 p.m. for dinner service.
Anderson is a James Beard award nominee known for his thoughtful, locally driven New England cuisine, and McDonald is a Kansas City-raised pitmaster whose expertise in the marriage of smoke and meat has led to rapid expansion of the Bear's brand in Greater Hartford since 2013. (This is the third 2017 restaurant opening for McDonald, who has also debuted Hartford's Blind Pig Pizzeria and Chango Rosa Tacos since January.)
In February 2016, Anderson and McDonald, along with partner A.J. Aurrichio, announced they had signed a lease for the full-service restaurant at 50 Memorial Road. The space previously housed fast-casual burger joint The Counter, and later, Pearl's Grill.
McDonald and Anderson first merged their styles at a barbecue-inspired farm-to-table dinner in 2015, then began running Monday night pop-ups at Anderson's Simsbury restaurant, offering casual menus of barbecue-inspired dishes with fine-dining touches.
"I've never had a casual restaurant before - I've never even worked in a casual restaurant before," said Anderson, an experienced fine-dining chef who opened Millwright's in 2012. "I came to Jamie because he nailed something that appeals to almost every demographic. There's no cultural divide in barbecue; everyone likes barbecue."
The partners said their weekly practice at Millwright's Tavern "really helped iron out" the unique barbecue concept in preparation for the West Hartford opening.
"First, we wanted to make sure that people liked it, because it is a little different," Anderson said. "The most encouraging sign was the amount of regulars that we had coming to that week after week. ... It certainly gave us a foot up."
The Cook and the Bear offers a similar format to the pop-up nights, with a checklist-style menu of starters, salads, sandwiches, items from the smoker, sides and desserts. A category of "bites" ($7) includes buttermilk biscuits with sesame honey butter, chicken wings roasted in the kitchen's charcoal oven, crispy pork rillette with kimchi pancakes and smoked salmon deviled eggs with everything bagel spice. Salads ($8) feature farm greens, farro and smoked beets, with the option to add meat for for an extra charge.
Pulled Berkshire pork, kielbasa, prime beef brisket, half-chickens, pastrami, spare ribs and even local farm beets get the smoker treatment, with portions priced at $9.50. Sandwiches ($10.50) include a "rodeo burger" with cheesy barbecue sauce, burnt end sliders with flavors of French onion soup, kielbasa on a potato roll with kimchi and mustard seeds, and pastrami inspired by Katz's Deli.
Sides ($6) complement the smoked items, ranging from vegetable-driven options like cabbage and fennel slaw, roast carrots and charred broccoli salad with sesame dressing to comfort plates like cheesy grits and mac and cheese gratin. The dinner menu also offers wood-grilled protein entrees, including quail with spring onion vinaigrette ($24), a pork loin chop with mustard jus ($25) and a "monstrous" smoked rib-eye ($48) with chimichurri.
"The theme of this restaurant is certainly barbecue, but it's also about smoke and fire," Anderson said. "It just brings a level of comfort to the food that you can't otherwise get."
The restaurant's menu is 50 percent vegetarian and about 85 percent gluten-free, Anderson said, widening diner appeal by offering health-conscious choices. Menus will change regularly according to seasonality, and like Millwright's, The Cook and the Bear will work closely with local farm partners.
The bar will offer nine rotating draft beers, some select wines that pair with barbecue dishes and creative cocktails, several with vegetable-juice bases like carrot and beet (which will also be available in non-alcoholic versions). Anderson said he would also like to offer industry-friendly late-night specials for restaurant workers in the area.
Ed Jones III, a veteran of Firebox, will serve as The Cook and the Bear's executive chef, and Aurrichio is the general manager. Aaron Stepka leads the bar program, and Millwright's pastry chef Kristin Eddy will also provide desserts for the new concept, with her twists on barbecue-friendly desserts ($8) like shoo-fly pie and banana pudding with smoked chocolate and pretzel crunch.
The 90-seat restaurant's style melds polished wood tables and leather booths with more raw and rustic touches, like a wall of stacked firewood framing the kitchen space and shelves displaying jars of pickled vegetables. The bar space is large and open, with tables for communal seating. Future patio seating is in the works.
Custom art by Jaime LaDucer of Chalk Art New England includes a colorful hallway mural representing a journey from Hartford into West Hartford, with local landmarks. The restaurant's branding is inspired by the popular children's book "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel."
"It's a little different, but not so different that you lose the fact that it's barbecue," Anderson said of the design. "Especially when you start smelling the smoke. That's when the décor will really come together."
The partners emphasized that the restaurant would be family-friendly, with affordable price points and fast service. "It's about attracting people at different hours," Anderson said. "We want to be here for families, and then we want to have a bar crowd later."
The Cook and the Bear will be open seven days a week for lunch, dinner and bar hours, with lunch starting Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. A Sunday brunch runs from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Carryout won't be available immediately, Anderson said, but will be added as the restaurant gets settled.
The Cook and the Bear is at 50 Memorial Road in West Hartford. 860-595-3345, thecookandthebear.com.