There’s something in the air at The Cook and The Bear. And we’re pretty sure it’s the scent of deliciously smoked brisket. Or maybe pastrami, or barbecue chicken. Whatever it is, we’re loving it.
The Cook and The Bear is brought to you by two well-known local chefs: Tyler Anderson and Jamie McDonald. A two-time nominee of the Best Chef Northeast James Beard Award and contestant in the upcoming season of Top Chef, Anderson is known to please palates at Simsbury's popular fine dining restaurant Millwright's, offering farm-fresh New England fare in a rustic setting. Jamie McDonald's Kansas City-style barbecue has led him to conquer the local food scene as well, with his fast-casual Bear's Smokehouse (located in Windsor and Hartford), his wood-fired pizzeria Blind Pig Pizza Co. in Hartford, and the recently opened Chango Rosa, serving Latin cuisine in the former Hot Tomatoes space at Union Station.
Located in West Hartford’s popular Blue Back Square, The Cook and The Bear instantly pulls you in with its rustic chic charm (and you know, that smoky aroma). Walk into this cozy spot, and you’ll know what we mean. With its exposed ceiling and garage door-turned-window, it has a cool industrial feel that’s new and trendy. But it still holds that classic cozy vibe thanks to striped wood tables, sink-in-your-seat booths, a fire wood lined wall, and checkered napkins. Because no barbecue spot is complete without checked napkins.
Unroll your utensils from that checkered napkin and dive into the menu - which is made up of Southern comfort food favorites. It’s divided into snacks, salads/sandwiches/smoker choices/entrees, and sides, giving you the option to mix and match to your liking. And we say a side of mac & cheese gratin or creamy grits goes well with barbecue anything.
One thing’s for sure: you have to try the buttermilk biscuits. Not only do they come out of the oven golden brown and warm, but they are served with a rich butter. And not just any butter, but butter made with honey and sesame seeds. Just try not slabbing that on just about anything and everything.
Other snacks, include the bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with chorizo and served with a refreshing yogurt sauce. However, the true stand out appetizer are the deviled eggs. Made with whipped salmon and fresh spices that resemble an everything bagel, this plate will have you believing you’re eating a carb-heavy breakfast but without the guilt.
Although not everything is guilt free. But when it comes to the impressive meat selections here, it doesn’t matter. There’s a section on the menu that showcases all the smoked options, ranging from pastrami to kielbasa. However, you aren’t going home without trying the prime beef brisket. It’s so tender you don’t even need a knife to cut through it. The sticky spare ribs are also worth a try. Different from the original style, these babies resemble Asian-style flavors with sesame seeds and a lick-your-fingers-good Chinese glaze.
And while this is a meat-heavy barbecue joint, the roasted salmon is nothing to shy away from. Topped with a tarragon and mustard sauce, this fish is flavorful and cooked to perfection. It easily flakes off the fork and the roasted carrots and simple farro are the perfect accompanying sides.
After all these savory items you’re going to want something sweet to balance it out. Good thing there is banana pudding topped with a smoky chocolate or pumpkin pie doused with real (and super thick) whipped cream to choose from.
Ok, so we know there’s a lot to tackle on the menu. But don’t worry. The best way to go about it (especially for first timers) is with the Family Style Feast. At $30 per person, you get to enjoy several snacks, all of the smoked items, each and every side, and one decadent dessert. And each item comes in a much smaller portion (phew!) allowing you to taste everything without overstuffing.
All this food talk is making us thirty. Let’s not forget the wood-top bar with red quilted stools making for an inviting space to have a cocktail (or three). It’s white tile wall is lined with oodles of bottles - most of which are bourbon, including the restaurant’s own Angels Envy private collection served straight from the barrel. And there are speciality cocktails, too, like Something Bitter (which is a Negroni made of bourbon instead of gin) that has an ultra smooth finish with perfectly tart orange zest.
But if you don’t want bourbon, there are other drinks to choose from. Just ask the master mixologists behind the bar. Tell them your spirit of choice and how you like your drinks (dry or sweet), and they will create something unique on the spot. And if all else fails, there’s always a margarita or frose (frozen rose sangria) along with plenty of local craft beers to choose from, such as Kent Falls “Berry Mint Gose.”
These guys don’t take reservations so expect a wait - especially on prime supper times, starting around 6pm. But if you have to wait, stick it out. It’s well worth it and a solid excuse to hit up the bar.
The Cook and The Bear 50 Memorial Road 860-999-1111
Thursday- Saturday Noon-Midnight
[Photography courtesy of Winter Caplanson]