Originally printed in the December 2018 issue of Produce Business.
Little Donkey’s use of unique and even odd ingredients is not for the faint of heart but offers indulgence for bold patrons.
Walking into dimly lit Little Donkey is a foray into an unknown and exotic culinary experience. Owned and operated by renowned James Beard Award-winning chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette, the restaurant focuses on small plates of globally inspired dishes, comfort and street foods.
The 100-seat, bustling open space oozes an industrial feel with its exposed ductwork. Little Donkey attracts a wide demographic, especially given its Cambridge location, and targets food enthusiasts. “Our demographic is simply people that enjoy food and find food interesting and fun,” says Drew Grosse, chef de cuisine. “Our ever-changing menu provides guests the opportunity to sample food from all over the world.”
Indeed, the restaurant provides a perfect stage for chefs to try any and all combinations of flavors, ingredients and techniques. “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,” says Ken Oringer
Little Donkey’s small plates heavily emphasize produce. “Without produce, you don’t really have a menu,” says Grosse. “Produce is everywhere on the menu, literally every item has some type of fruit or vegetable component to it.”
The restaurant spends at least $400 to $500 per day on produce and sources from a wide variety of purveyors. “We go to a farmer’s market whenever we can,” says Grosse. “We talk to our produce companies to find out where the best local stuff is from. This summer, for example, Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon, MA, had great appeal.”
Produce wholesalers also provide significant value for the restaurant, which uses Specialty Produce (Boston, MA) and Baldor (Boston, MA) almost exclusively, as well as Sid Wainer (New Bedford, MA). “Sourcing from wholesalers allows everyone to make money,” says Grosse. “They have the buying power to get bulk items at great prices.”
The operation’s focus in sourcing revolves around seasonality and taste. “Sometimes people jump on the bandwagon of certain items, even when they are not at their full potential,” says Grosse. “I like to wait until the absolute best times to use the items.”
The flexibility and format of the restaurant also allows for a great deal of experimentation in flavors and ingredients. Grosse notes a few examples. “We use fun citrus fruits like Buddha’s hand, fresh yuzu and jackfruit,” he says.
Little Donkey’s menu offers a diverse, multicultural mix of small plates utilizing a wide variety of unique ingredients. “Menu items can change here on a daily basis,” says Grosse. “We do have staples that will more than likely never leave or leave then come back. However, changing the menu is fun and challenging at the same time and it’s what drives us as chefs.”
For the hors d’oeuvres, the Ikura Corn Bread with maple butter and yuzu kosho provides a tasty tingle for the tongue. Expertly prepared Foie Gras marries caramelized pluots, chamomile and fennel pollen. On the Charcuterie, the BLT Lettuce Wraps are artistically presented on a palate featuring lamb bacon, crisp petals of Boston lettuce, pimento cheese, tomato jam and pickled red onion. Mahi Mahi Nachos boast nduja queso fundido, fresh salsa and black beans. The Razor Clam Casino adds smoked kielbasa butter, parmesan bread crumbs, lemon and scallions to a traditional favorite.
Vegetables and salads hold a prominent place on the menu, with a variety of offerings. The delicious Pupusa highlights squash blossom, Chihuahua cheese and spicy slaw. SunGold Tomato Tonnato pairs ricotta salata and blue cheese for a savory dish. The Sweet Cheesy Corn mixes flavorful shishito, mozzarella and miso topped with a surprise for diners – the dried bonito fish shavings served on top actually move when reacting with the heat of the dish. The Italian Burrata showcases heirloom tomatoes, pistachio pesto and candied lemon.
In the pasta area, Little Donkey continues to innovate. Spicy Thai Street noodles incorporate kohlrabi, bok choy, peanuts and are garnished with cilantro and bean sprouts. An aromatic Biryani blends basmati rice, saffrom, halibut, cashews, cardamom, sunflower seeds and barberry. Manti, an Istanbul Meat Ravioli, is luscious with garlic sour cream and red pepper butter. The Wok Fried Chow Fun features local Hen of the Wood mushrooms in savory ginger, yellow chive and Calabrian chili spices.
For meat and fish lovers, the restaurant serves up Blowfish Tails with black garlic aioli and charred lemon or a Kalbi Short Rib in a Korean BBQ sauce accompanied by kimchi, pickles and shaved daikon. Octopus a la Plancha adds a charred onion vinaigrette and is served with potato tostones. The Pickled Brine Fried Chicken Sandwich adds a green papaya slaw, jalapeno and avocado ranch, with the menu warning “it is hot and messy.”
The journey closes with innovative dessert offerings, including a Churro Ice Cream Sandwich. Even in this course, produce remains a key component as evidenced in the Concord Grape Clafoutis a la Mode or in the Blueberry Galette, featuring Maine blueberries, coconut ice cream and macadamia nuts.
505 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139
Lunch: Mon-Fri, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Dinner: Sun-Thurs, 5 p.m. – 11 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 5 p.m. – 11:30 p.m.
Brunch: Sat & Sun, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.