At exhilarating Little Donkey, Bissonnette and Oringer ditch the rulebook
Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer are tired of playing by the rules.
They’re the chef duo — longtime work spouses — behind Coppa and Toro, both in Boston’s South End. Kitchen pioneers, they’ve always been adventurous with ingredients and flavors, adding sea urchin to their spaghetti carbonara and fennel pollen to their sausage pizza.
For the most part, though, Coppa is a classic Italian enoteca and Toro a traditional Spanish tapas bar, neither straying far from their respective cuisines.
But at their latest venture, Little Donkey, which opened in July, any semblance of convention goes out the window.
The menu embraces Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, sometimes in a single dish. Matzo ball ramen is served alongside farro kimchi fried rice, Vietnamese bologna with squid, Turkish ravioli, and a fried chicken sandwich. That’s just dinner; wait till you try breakfast, which ranges from Cap’n Crunch to johnny cake porridge to plum tartine.
It’s food that makes you cock your head, scrunch your brow, exchange quizzical glances with your tablemates, and ask: What exactly are we tasting?
The slight tang in the charred avocado? That’s pomegranate molasses. The nuttiness in the swordfish? That’s zucchini-marcona almond tabbouleh with harissa and mint. The lingering sweet-bitterness of the olive oil cake? That’s grapefruit marmalade.
“We wanted a restaurant that didn’t have to be specifically one kind of cuisine,” explains Bissonnette. “If it wanted to be Thai, if it wanted to be New England clams, we don’t have to have any rules about that.”
Adds Oringer: “Every chef likes to have a restaurant where they can cook whatever the hell they want to cook any time they want to cook it, and this gives us that freedom.”
Little Donkey is Bissonnette and Oringer unleashed, and crowds can’t get enough. Behind a nondescript facade, this is Central Square’s newest hot spot.
At dinnertime, the gaping dining room, all exposed brick and duct work and soaring ceilings, is dark, loud, mobbed, and throbbing with energy. Amid the din, a woman near our table glimpses a distinctive figure in the open kitchen. “I think that’s Jamie Bissonnette!” she gasps, starstruck, to a friend. It is indeed, the neck-to-knuckles-to-knees tattoos making him unmissable.
Service is warm, attentive, knowledgeable, and unpretentious. The waitstaff tells us that dishes are on the small side and meant to be shared, so the recommendation is two to four plates per person. No single dish is exorbitantly priced, but if you follow your server’s advice, a party of four will easily run up a $300 bill, including drinks and tip.
Food arrives artfully staggered, and the creativity and complexity of many of the flavor combinations leave us wowed.
Wagyu steak tartare gets pungent kick from Korean chile paste, and it’s paired with airy, eggy, delicate popovers whose only imperfection is that they’re not served warm. “Toast and schmear” sounds pedestrian, but the bread is spread with rich, herbal swordfish confit. We’d eat this every day if we could. Manti, or Istanbul ravioli filled with beef and lamb, resemble little star-shaped dumplings and taste like a delicious variant of pierogi.
Tender octopus is enlivened by charred onion vinaigrette. Excellent tuna poke explodes with flavor from garlic, ginger, and more of that chile paste. Fried rice isn’t rice at all; it’s made with chewy farro seasoned with lime leaf and lemongrass.
How special can hummus be? Here it’s exceptional. The chickpeas are soaked, boiled, and sauteed before being blended with tahini, lemon, and olive oil, then served with beets and Persian flatbread zebra-striped from the grill. You’ll never want chickpeas from a can again.
Smoked short ribs are silken, pulling apart with a fork. Silver queen corn is decadent from bone marrow, mozzarella, and Parmesan. Before you take a bite, look closely: Flakes of bonito wiggle and wave like living creatures, the paper-thin fish undulating as heat rises from the dish.
When dishes disappoint, it’s usually because they’re not as interesting as ones that came before. Heirloom tomatoes and Little Gem lettuce salad are a bit drab. Chow fun is too one-note: all ginger. The ikura is basically a $20 cup of full-strength soy sauce with a few pearls of salmon roe. Halibut biryani is tasty but skimps on fish.
BLT lettuce wraps — which require self-assembly of lamb bacon, pimento cheese, tomato jam, and pickled red onions — are ultimately too much messy work. Ditto for the thigh-meat, partially skin-on chicken sandwich, which drips with avocado ranch dressing and green papaya slaw.
And the burger is so sloppy it comes with a wet nap — made with foie gras, onion soup mayo, pickles, Buffalo ranch dressing, and jalapeno potato chips. The mishmash drowns out what I most want to taste: beef.
The burger and chicken arrive on untoasted Wonder Bread-like buns that are too mushy for my taste, but Bissonnette proclaims the brand — Martin’s Potato Rolls — “the most superior hot dog, burger, or slider buns in the world.”
After the world tour of dinner, desserts don’t deliver the same oomph.
Chicory soft serve is refreshing, but basically just coffee ice cream. Tiny sandwiches of Ritz crackers and mango curd are cute but skippable. To-die-for hot fudge overpowers the bite-size green tea ice cream profiteroles; Little Donkey should simply sell that warm, wonderful chocolate sauce by the cup.
The guaranteed crowd pleaser is chocolate chip cookie dough (the eggs are pasteurized) served, to the delight of all, on an actual mixer beater.
Good luck arriving for dinner without a reservation. But you can be seated immediately if you go for breakfast, served only on weekdays for now. In the mornings, Little Donkey transforms into a calm, quiet oasis, the big room flooded with natural light — and, when the front windows are open to the street, fresh air.
Best of all, the bar morphs into an enticing pastry counter spread with magical treats: gorgeous plum galette on a perfectly flaky crust, faintly salty butter-basted miso banana bread, Concord grape linzer cookies. And more. You’ll keep wandering back, happily grazing.
There are hot breakfasts, too, including an ultra-sweet porridge of johnny cake meal, almond milk, maple syrup, and hazelnuts. One quibble: It pools with so much melted butter that its richness is overkill. We love the chilaquiles, made with fried yellow corn tortillas, salsa rojo, cherry tomatoes, cotija cheese, and a fried egg. They’re the fanciest nachos you’ll ever have.
Other breakfast highlights: spicy chickpea stew, fragrant with cumin and coriander, and the Jerusalem bowl, which combines farro, lentils, feta, tomatillo salsa, and a poached egg.
Turns out ditching the rules makes for an exhilarating ride.
505 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, Cambridge, 617-945-1008, www.littledonkeybos.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $5-$14. Entrees $13-$26. Desserts $7-$9. Breakfast $3-$12.
Hours Breakfast Mon-Fri 8-11 a.m., lunch Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m., dinner Sun-Wed 5 p.m.-12:30 a.m. and Thu-Sat 5 p.m.-1:30 a.m.
Noise level Loud at dinner, a quiet oasis for breakfast
What to order Toast & schmear, Istanbul ravioli, hummus, silver queen corn, smoked short ribs, octopus a la plancha, miso banana bread, chilaquiles, chocolate chip cookie dough