Faced with a batch of fresh beets, Tyler Anderson was stumped on how to prepare them. The chef-owner of Millwright's in Simsbury was gearing up for his first collaboration event with Jamie McDonald of Bear's Smokehouse: a barbecue-inspired summer meal at Simsbury's Community Farm.
Dry-rub and smoke them, suggested McDonald. The beets — served with cumin yogurt, fresh squash and roasted cashews — came out fork-tender.
The beets ultimately became the ideal representation of the merging of their styles. 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.
Seven months after their initial endeavor, Anderson and McDonald are about to introduce their innovative barbecue and fine dining mashup to West Hartford as a full-service restaurant and bar. The two restaurateurs, along with Millwright's director of operations A.J. Aurrichio, have signed a lease at 50 Memorial Road in Blue Back Square for a new establishment called Cook and the Bear, according to the group's attorney Richard Rochlin. The space briefly housed Pearl's Grill and, before that, an outpost of The Counter, a national burger chain. Representatives for Blue Back Square declined to comment on the lease at this stage.
Fans of Millwright's and Bear's, which has two locations in Hartford and Windsor, have been sampling previews of the concept at the Simsbury restaurant's tavern. In August, Anderson and McDonald partnered to launch a weekly casual pop-up menu on Monday nights, featuring distinctive barbecue-fusion bites like a kimchi pancake topped with pulled pork, macaroni and cheese with chicken cracklings, poutine with foie gras gravy and fried green tomatoes. The a la carte options also include salads and vegetable sides made with local produce, sandwiches (French-onion-flavored burnt-end sliders, Nashville hot chicken), hearty portions of meats from Bear's smokers and decadent desserts.
Anderson describes Cook and the Bear as "craft barbecue." "The word craft is used a lot, but it sort of says what we're doing," he says. "It's a twist, a little 'cheffy'."
The restaurant, with a projected summer opening date, will have indoor seating for 102. The partners envision a menu similar to what they've been serving in Simsbury, but with expanded options, including a full rotisserie element, additional vegetarian choices and healthy sides.
Cook and the Bear will have an in-depth beverage program, Anderson said, with local beers, select wines and creative cocktails. Other offerings include a late-night menu with items like authentic ramen (with broth made from leftover smoked bones) as a way to position the bar as a nightlife destination, along with weekend brunch, happy hour and a focus on takeout options. Aurrichio will serve as general manager of the new restaurant, and the partners also plan to hire 30 to 40 new employees for part- and full-time positions.
Millwright's pastry chef, Kristin Eddy, will handle Cook and the Bear's desserts, which will be "very streamlined, but creative, and everything will have its foot in the world of barbecue," Anderson said. Eddy's past pop-up sweets have included honey cornbread ice cream, s'mores cake and cinnamon bread pudding.
The weekly tavern events in Simsbury have served as valuable preparation for the new venture, McDonald said. "Mondays are allowing us to try a whole bunch of different stuff. When we do start, we're not figuring anything out. It's like having constant soft openings for months."
The restaurateurs have several other projects in the works. Anderson heads to Washington, D.C., on Feb. 20 to represent No Kid Hungry/Share Our Strength at the Democratic Governors' Association "Taste of America" gala.
For McDonald, a 6,500-square-foot Bear's Smokehouse is under construction on Hartford's Front Street, and operations at the current Arch Street restaurant will move there once it's completed. He is also hiring for his Bear's Express take-out spot in South Windsor and he's signed a lease for a space at Hartford's Union Station, where he'll serve beer, wine, cocktails and appetizer-style plates. Bear's was also recently named as the first major food vendor at Hartford's new Dunkin' Donuts Park, soon to be home of the Yard Goats minor league baseball team.
Anderson said he's most excited about Cook and the Bear's casual format.
"We do have the tavern [in Simsbury,] but people from West Hartford and the area don't really come there," he said. "This is a way for us to get our style of cooking out to a lot more people at a lower price point. It's farm-fresh, chef-driven food at a price point that everyone can afford, [and] a restaurant that really is about fun."