Four years. That’s the time Tyler Anderson devoted to perfecting his signature dish, Tapioca Custard. A lush confection of clams, bacon, onion, potato and fennel, the delicacy perfectly defines the wizardry of this celebrated chef … a magical spin on homespun.
The small portion is intentionally introductory, a riff on a classic New England starter. As if by sorcery, the custard conjures “all the flavors of clam chowder.”
Anderson conceived the dish as a tribute to the meal – and the moment -- that super-charged his culinary life. “I went to the French Laundry in 2001 when Tomas Keller was in the kitchen,” he recalls. “Up to then I had been cooking mainly to meet women and go drinking with my buddies.”
He began the feast with Keller’s classic, Oysters and Pearls, a sabayon of pearl tapioca with beau soleil oysters and white sturgeon caviar.
“I took the first bite,” he remembers. “And at that exact second understood that cooking could be more than just cooking.” He pauses and grins. “It made me smile. I was happy. I now had a passion to make people happy.”
Anderson’s “Greatest Hit” does just that: please. Which is why Tapioca Custard appears on all of Millwright’s season driven programs and every tasting menu. The unexpected conjunction of chowder flavor with pudding like texture sets the stage for the alchemy Anderson achieves in most every dish: a mashup of the familiar and unfamiliar.
Anderson titles another starter simply “Dumpling.” But wait, nothing on Millwright’s menu can be that straightforward. Indeed, within the vibrant green spinach and potato gnocchi pocket, we tasted fermented onions and meaty short ribs seasoned with “fine herbs,” fillings that added unexpected depth and complexity. Once a pitching prospect, Anderson enjoys throwing curves. Consider this robust “Dumpling” more an ode to an American Steakhouse than an Asian Tea House.
The line-caught Bluefin also plays Home and Away. The silky Atlantic raw tuna is offset with a crunchy, Asian style pickled daikon, contrasted with sugary roasted kernels of late Connecticut corn bathed in a warm, nutty brown New England butter sauce. The exotic mix of tastes, textures, and temperatures has been finely calibrated for counterpoint and complement. Cheese at the knees, followed by a chin-high change-up.
Game fowl usually enjoys a sweet spot on Millwright’s Autumnal menus, especially a bird stuffed with the season. This fall Anderson has chosen the flavor packed Quail, its distinctive taste more assertive than Hen, but milder than Duck. To up the ante, he loads the 4 ounce breast with wild rice, pecans, onions roasted for two hours, and vinegar sauce. For all that gusto, the savory flesh tasted delicate and nuanced, without a hint of gamy-ness. This homage to the harvest celebrates Anderson’s ardor for Connecticut cuisine, though he was born and bred in Southern California.
“When we were kids, my friends dressed up like G.I. Joe,” he says, “I was all boy, but there’s a picture of me at 10 years old in drag looking like Julia Child! Even then, I wanted to cook..”
Anderson learned the “trade” (that’s how he refers to working in other chef’s kitchens) by cooking under such luminaries as Charlie Trotter in Chicago before coming to Connecticut in 2009. After earning raves at Copper Beach Inn in Essex, he founded Millwright’s in Simsbury 4 years ago, where he and the restaurant have been lavishly reviewed and showered with all manner of local and national awards, including a James Beard nomination. Anderson has now risen to Celebrity Chef status, having appeared on such shows as Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay. He stars in this season’s Top Chef (debuting December 7th on Bravo.)
With all that acclaim, I wondered why Anderson chose rural Simsbury to locate his first restaurant, rather than hot spots like West Hartford or New Haven. Then I stepped into Millwright’s, set within an historic 17th century grist mill. In a blink, I knew the answer. The wood-hewn main dining room overlooks the cascading waterfall that once powered the grindstone. The bucolic view and transporting history perfectly frame Anderson’s 21st century take on classic New England fare.
“But I came here for more than the space and the scenery,” he explains. “This is the heart of Connecticut farmland. I have relationships with my farmers that allow me to have a voice in the product before it’s planted and the timing when it’s pulled.”
He visits his farmers every week, even helping them alter plant pigments and create new colors for his dishes, hues not usually found on a chef’s traditional palette.
Clearly, Anderson drives every aspect of Millwright’s operation. With one exception: the pastry program, which is run by Kristin Eddy. She honed her skills at CIA and in distinguished NYC kitchens like DbBistro and Gramercy Tavern. “Dessert is all Kristin’s show,” Tyler admits. “I trust her taste completely.”
Her ambrosial Chocolate Tart didn’t just conclude the show, it stopped it. A chocolate crust with milk chocolate mousse embraced seckle pears poached in apple cider, all bathed in a decadent dulce de leche sauce, then adorned with a quenelle of cranberry sorbet and ethereal cardamom and cinnamon “bubbles.” The tart virtually brimmed with candied surprise and sweet surrender.
“I love making desserts,” Eddy says, “that give the guest a warm, comforting feeling … a connection or memory.”
All of Kristin’s autumnal pastries begin with the bounty of orchards, fields and bogs at the peak of season: ripe apples, fresh cranberries, and sweet potatoes, as well as strawberry and blueberry jams preserved months ago, or rhubarb pickled last summer. Her menu celebrates Millwrights’ sustainable, just picked sensibility, with “bubbles” of warmth and whimsy.
In addition to the main dining room, Millwright’s also features a convivial, rustic Tavern, which offers a high end bar menu with craft cocktails and other pre and post prandial libations. Another room, the Waterfall Club, affords private dining and stunning water views for gatherings of 30 or less.
Before leaving, I lingered in the dining room to savor the pastoral setting outside the windows: the waterfall and river shimmering in the harvest moonlight. Two hours later, I was back in bustling, urban Stamford, still metabolizing Millwright’s magic.
77 West Street, Simsbury 860.651.5500 millwrightsrestaurant.com