Local celeb-chef tag team Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette have played it pretty straight at their smash-hit South End restaurants Toro and Coppa, mostly hewing to classic Spanish and Italian idioms, respectively. But at Little Donkey, their third local collaboration, they have abandoned any pretense of coloring inside the lines, creating a free-wheeling, globe-trotting menu that alights variously all over Asia, Europe and the Americas, occasionally fusing elements from distant cuisines. The results are never dull, sometimes charmingly off-kilter and frequently sensational.
Raw bar offers a smashing start, recalling Oringer’s recently reinvented UNI in its eclecticism and pristine ingredients. Perfect raw oysters ($3 each) offer individual briny accents from local harbors. In a novel presentation, razor clams ($11) are chopped with jicama, cucumber and pepitas and arrayed on their shells. The gnarly steamed barnacles that are percebes ($19) are helpfully preworked to make extracting the little animals easier; they’re delicious with Old Bay mayo if a bit meager in portion. Tuna poke ($14) is simply gorgeous: big ruby-red chunks of raw tuna bracingly dressed in gochujang and crunchily adorned with pickled bean sprouts. Not raw but creatively served, their tops seemingly sliced off with a bandsaw, BBQ jumbo oysters ($14) offer meaty grilled innards, simple and brilliant with a bit of Tapatio-spiked butter. A special of live uni ($38) served with flatbread to be smeared with miso butter and spritzed with lemon is similarly witty, generous and utterly delectable.
You’ll notice the theme of awesome breads, like a fantastic rendition of Boston’s own Parker House rolls ($8), classically tall, fluffy and butter-glazed, here hiding, bao-like, a tiny inner pocket of Chinese sausage. Air-pocketed black-pepper popovers ($14) are a natural vehicle for fine-textured Wagyu steak tartare, though the beef is underseasoned and overly acidic. But clam garlic bread ($9) is an unqualified smash: loads of chopped clams, garlic and butter atop crunchy ciabatta with a faint whiff of Arab savory and sweet spices. Good, softish rolls accompany the terrifically crunchy-coated pickle-brine fried-chicken sandwich ($14) and a perhaps overly busy burger ($15) of dry-aged beef, buffalo pickles, onion soup mayo, foie gras and jalapeño chips.
A gorgeous cucumber salad ($9) lands somewhere between Greece and Georgia with its feta, spicy peppers and splashes of buttermilk. Vegetarians may opt for charred avocado ($5) with arty squiggles of yogurt and pomegranate molasses, and a lovely red lentil kale dhal ($9) atop jasmine rice and flecked with local summer vegetables. Farro kimchi fried rice ($13) topped with a soft-fried egg and subtle Thai green curry offers similar dreamy comfort with bean sprouts for crunch. Another Subcontinental echo can be heard in monkfish biryani ($16), a complex and fragrant basmati casserole, though the fish gets a bit lost in the mix.
BLT lettuce wraps ($12) offer a delicious game of mix-and-match with a platter of almost candy-sweet lamb bacon, pimiento cheese, tomato jam, pickled red onions and slices of plum. Silver Queen corn ($8) offers an odd off-the-cob riff on Toro’s famed elotes, turning the umami knob to 11 with additions of parmesan, bone marrow and giant bonito flakes. Vietnamese bologna ($11) is similarly weird-but-tasty, with a lot of batter-fried squid, peanuts and cabbage providing salty/sweet/savory/semi-crunchy accompaniment to the porky cold cuts—“chef stoner food,” as Bissonnette trenchantly describes it.
Pastas similarly veer into unexpected byways, as in the superb, rich version of the Turkish ravioli called manti ($13), stuffed with ground lamb and beef and sauced with garlicky sour cream and red-pepper butter. Matzo ball ramen ($13) has Japanese looks, but the flavors—luscious chicken broth, burnt onion, schmaltz—are all Jewish deli, with a fine dumpling and good spicy chicken. A more traditional lobster fra diavolo ($26), big rigatoni in a fairly spicy vodka sauce, is a good value with its abundant load of lobster meat. Desserts favor sweet-and-salty flavors, as in chicory soft-serve ($8) with peanuts and Thai-tea chantilly. But the winner on whimsy is chocolate chip cookie dough ($9) served on an electric-mixer beater.
Beverage director Jodie Battles has crafted her most interesting program yet: a small-producer-
centric beer/cider list with four drafts and 14 cans and bottles ($6-$12); a dozen affordable wines by the glass ($10-$13), including fascinators like Maine’s Oyster Rivers Morphos ($11), a cloudy, nearly flat sparkler in the pétillant naturel style; a 39-bottle wine list ($44-$128, most under $65) with plenty of abstruse wineries; and a cocktail program that leans crafty and specializes in gentle riffs on classics, like the Maginot Line ($11), which gives the Manhattan a gingery lilt.
Diners accustomed to Toro’s claustrophobic quarters will welcome the generous spacing in the 90-seat dining room and at the 14-seat stone-topped bar, though the need to defend one’s drinks and plates against aggressive bussing will be familiar. The airy room, all brick and concrete in whites and grays, with soaring ceilings and windows overlooking still-freaky Central Square, has a pleasantly industrial feel, only verging on painful noise levels at the busiest prime-time hours. That’s when the usually-polished service can lag a bit, too, as when we struggled for five minutes to balance a wobbly table. But every server demonstrates verve and depth on a menu that newbies may find daunting. After conquering New York and Bangkok with new Toro outlets, maybe Oringer and Bissonnette finally operating across the Charles shouldn’t seem like such a big deal. Given how loose and fun Little Donkey feels, and how neatly it fits its crazy-quilt neighborhood, one may forgive Cambervillians for thinking it is.
-BBQ jumbo oysters
-Parker House rolls
-Clam garlic bread
-Fried chicken sandwich
-Red lentil kale dhal
-Lobster fra diavolo
Hours: Dinner, Sun.-Wed., 5 pm-12:30 am, Thu.-Sat., 5 pm-1:30 am; Breakfast, Mon.-Fri., 8-11 am Reservations: Yes Parking: Nearby public lots, some metered street spaces Liquor: Full bar
Little Donkey 505 Mass. Ave., Cambridge (617-945-1008) littledonkeybos.com