Hee-haw! Set your enthusiasm level to "braying."
Chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette (Coppa, Toro) have reunited for a large project: Little Donkey. Officially opened last night in Central Square, it's sure to satisfy all your cravings for internationally-inspired small plates and creative cocktails in a cool, casual setting. We checked in with the gents to learn more about the project — including, most importantly, what you'll eat.
Get your ass over there.
505 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge; 617-945-1008
Little Donkey is Oringer and Bissonnette's third original joint concept.
Besides their individual successes, Oringer and Bissonnette have been quite a team. Together they're partners in the South End's intimate Italian enoteca Coppa and perpetually-packed Spanish tapas haven Toro. The latter restaurant has also spun off two additional locations — Toro NYC opened in 2013, and Toro Bangkok debuted last month — with a third Dubai outpost in the offing. Little Donkey is their first Boston-area opening in more than six years, and their dynamic has only grown stronger since. "We actually don't disagree that often," says Bissonnette. "But when we do, working it out is a pretty natural progression. We both know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em."
Interjects Oringer: "I feel like doing some Kenny Rogers karaoke."
The name is a reference to hard work and multiculturalism.
The duo was excited to open Little Donkey in Cambridge's Central Square. "It's a neighborhood with some urban grit to it, which we both love," says Oringer. It also feels like something of a homecoming to Bissonnette, a longtime punk fan who used to live in neighboring Cambridgeport and spent countless nights crawling Central's infamous rock clubs. For the design of the 90-seat restaurant, the duo wanted to skew "light, open and airy" says Oringer. The high-ceilinged space has nearly floor-to-ceiling windows that open wide to the street, exposed brick, walnut tables and slatted wood-bench banquettes. As for the name? The donkey has been an important assistance animal in cultures around the world, say the chefs, both hard-working and comforting. "Just like Jamie," offers Oringer.
His co-chef chuckles. "Are you calling me an ass?"
There's a supremely well-stocked raw bar.
"The premise is basically to have no rules about what we want to cook," says Oringer of Little Donkey's culinary approach. Rather than hew to one genre, the small plates menu incorporates inspiration from all over the world. "It's how we would cook for friends at home," says Oringer. The feeding starts with an extensive raw bar selection that features your standard oysters, clams and crabs alongside everything from percebes (goose barnacles) with Old Bay mayo to ikura (salmon roe) with wasabi and garlic soy.
The small-plates menu covers cuisines from every corner of the globe.
"I've always been obsessed with Indian food. Those are some of the first flavors I fell in love with," says Bissonnette of one menu item, the monkfish biryani. A popular street food of fried basmati rice, it's often layered with marinated lamb or mutton, he explains, but they wanted to do something different. Hence the monkfish with saffron, cashews, cardamom and curried pickles.
Uni fans will fawn over the ramen.
Well before every chef in the states was riding the trendy ramen train, Oringer's Uni was introducing Bostonians to the idea that it's much more than college dorm food. Fans of Oringer's separately-owned Back Bay venture (which recently re-launched, swallowing the space that belonged to Oringer's late Clio) will appreciate Little Donkey's spin: Matzo ball ramen of chicken broth, burnt onion, schmaltz, corn and spicy pork.
Yes, there's a burger, and it's beautiful.
The never-ending battle over bragging rights to Boston's best burger seems to have a new competitor. Check out this glorious sandwich of dry-aged Pat LaFrieda beef topped with pickles marinated in Buffalo sauce and caramelized onions folded around seared pieces of foie gras. The other garnishes were inspired by the duo's mutual memories of "growing up eating chips with Lipton onion soup and sour cream dip," says Oringer. Hence some crispy jalapeño chips and a little slathering of onion soup mayo.
There's plenty of attention to presentation.
"It seems like every restaurant has a cucumber salad, but they're all pretty much the same. We wanted to do something different," says Oringer. The eye-catching one here combines feta cheese with a salsa verde-style sauce of charred tomatoes and mint, peppers marinated with Turkish spices and a buttermilk dressing.
There's a small nod to Clio, kind of.
Just before closing on New Year's Eve, Oringer's Clio hosted a marathon multi-course dinner featuring 19 alumni chefs (one for each year of the restaurant's lifespan), including James Beard-nominated chef and columnist J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. His contribution to the dinner, a double-fried chicken sandwich, inspired Oringer and Bissonnette to add their own take to Little Donkey's menu. Their pickle brine fried chicken sandwich is topped with green papaya slaw, jalapeño and avocado ranch.
They tapped a heavy hitter to lead the cocktail program.
The 15-seat bar highlights local craft beers and small wine producers, plus a creative cocktail program from lead bartender Vikram Hedge, who's previously cornered plenty of praise from cocktail geeks during his time at Island Creek Oyster and Sarma.
The booze is just as creative as the food
Among the bar's highlights: Donkey Punch, a mix of reposado, cassis, lime and agave in a halved melon. "And it packs quite a punch, too," says Oringer.