Little Donkey must be one of the most anticipated openings in Central Square this year. Chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette, both James Beard Award winning chefs with several successful restaurants under their belts, have joined together to open their first restaurant in Cambridge. It's the first restaurant they have jointly opened in the Boston area in over six years.
This time, they are not letting themselves be limited by any sort of cuisine. They want to have the freedom to be completely creative and to incorporate all sorts of global food ideas they've picked up from their travels. We stopped by a couple of weeks ago to try out this restaurant. I was able to get a last minute reservation by using the Reserve App (everything on Opentable was completely booked). Here's a first look at some of the exciting new dishes!
There is a whole RAW BAR menu which includes all sorts of shellfish (oysters, clams, crabs, and even percebes!). There are also a lot of globally inspired raw fish offerings, like tuna poke, ceviche, uni (sea urchin), ikura (salmon egg roe), and live scallops (!). Oysters are $3 each and clams are $2 each, while most other offerings range between $11 - $25. You can also get The Donkey Platter ($125), which includes a mix of the various items on the raw bar menu.
We ordered the Razor Clams ($11), which came topped with jicama, cucumbers, and pepitas. They were tart, summery, and just a tad on the salty side for my taste (though Bryan thought it was fine).
We also tried the Uni ($18), a special of the day. The uni came served over a mustard gelee with scattered mustard seeds, micro chives, and edible flowers. The uni itself was very salty, but was balanced out by the refreshing mustard gelee. We were not given a spoon at first, so we had to eat the uni with a fork. After asking for a spoon and taking another bite of uni together with a generous amount of gelee, the dish became perfect. In fact, I think it was the best dish we had all night.
From the CHARCUTERIE section of the menu, we ordered the BLT Lettuce Wraps ($12). Inspired by the Korean bo ssam concept, this version included thick cut lamb bacon with pimento cheese, tomato jam, grilled peaches, and pickled red onion. There was enough to make about 4 wraps, and the sweet salty combo was refreshing and delicious. I did think that the bacon on its own was very salty. Definitely make sure to combine it with lots of other ingredients in the wrap!
From the HORS D'OEUVRES section of the menu, we tried the Pickle Brine Fried Chicken Sandwich ($11). Don't be deceived by the size of the photo. The sandwich itself is quite bite-sized, closer to a slider than a hamburger. The fried chicken itself was awesome - satisfying crunchy and juicy inside. Inside there was green papaya slaw, jalapeno, and an avocado ranch sauce. It was excellent.
From the VEGETABLES AND SALADS part of the menu, we ordered Heirloom Tomatoes. The dish came with a mix of juicy red late summer tomatoes and firmer green tomatoes plus garlic scapes, charred onions, and a house made XO sauce.
The XO sauce really reminded me of sour plum powder with an added fishy, anchovy-like umami. The plum powder taste brought back memories of childhood. My mom used to eat fresh tomatoes with a slight dusting of sour plum powder. It's been decades since I've enjoyed a tomato that way, but those memories sure are strong!
From the MEAT & FISH section we ordered Monkfish Biryani, their version of an Indian rice dish made with basmati rice, saffron, cashews, and cardamom. The dish was quite good, though we weren't sure whether monkfish was the best protein to use in this dish. Bryan concluded that he still prefers the lamb biryani he had in India, where the meat adds a more intense depth of flavor.
From the MEAT & FISH section we also ordered the Octopus A La Plancha, which came with a charred onion vinaigrette and potato tostones. The flavor of the octopus was fantastic, though it was a bit tougher in texture than I preferred. I found the octopus itself to be too salty, but adding a splash of lemon helped.
It was hard to decide between the various noodle and fried rice options on the PASTA & GRAINS section of the menu. We eventually chose the Wok Fried Chow Fun ($16), rice noodles cooked in a searing hot work and tossed with deep fried soft shelled crab, Chinese chives, scallions, and bean sprouts in a Calabrian chili (Italian) and fermented black bean (Chinese) sauce. The smokiness from the hot wok (known as wok hei in China), was very pronounced. Bryan actually declared "this is the best chow fun I've ever had in Boston" (referring specifically to the wok hei).
For dessert, we tried two desserts that the server recommended: a chicory soft serve and mango chili kaffir lime Ritz cracker sandwiches. Both were OK, but nothing special. The soft serve was quite soft (almost melted), which made it a bit less pleasant to eat. The crackers had a nice sweet + salty combo, but didn't really blow us away.
The restaurant tries to source rare and more unusual wines. We tried a Barbera from California from Forlorn Hope by a winemaker named Matthew Rorick. Only 225 cases were produced. It was really interesting (my first time trying a non-Italian Barbera) and quite good.
It is very, very exciting to finally have Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette come onto this side of the river to open a restaurant. I have always enjoyed their other restaurants, Toro and Coppa, but never visited them that much because they were much further away from Cambridge (and always crowded!).
I definitely love the concept. The chefs are incorporating all sorts of global influences, and it's fun! In our one meal we most certainly tasted elements of Italy, China, India, Japan, Thailand, Spain, Korea, and lots of New England as well. Sometimes mixing cultures can be risky, but these guys are pros and they do a very good job of it. The food is creative and quite good.
I personally did find the salt level in several dishes to be a bit too aggressive, but some may find it OK. The restaurant is still figuring out things, and I'm sure as time passes, things will become much smoother. Even now, though, it's already a great addition to Central Square. The vibe is fun, the menu items are creative, and the food is high quality. I am confident it will do very well.
The restaurant is currently open on weeknights from 5:30PM - 11PM, though they do hope to eventually open for breakfast and lunch. You can make reservations, but they also have a lot of seats that they leave open for walk-ins. There is a lively bar area, and on the evening we went, there were over half a dozen people just standing near the bar hanging out. Definitely check it out!
Little Donkey Cambridge
505 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge, MA 02139