Little Donkey (Cambridge, MA - Central Square) hee-haw

#1

I checked out Little Donkey for dinner this week and enjoyed it very much. It’s great to have this place in walking distance. The building they are in is pretty nondescript but they did a very nice job with the internal build out. The space is much bigger than I expected; seems as large as Coppa and Toro combined. I had a reservation for a table, but there were 2 bar seats open when I arrive so we grabbed those instead. The seats at the bar are comfortable and wide. It is a good design as even though there isn’t room between the seats you still have more than enough room if bordering encroachers or leaners.

The service at the bar was enthusiastic and professional. There alcohol selection is very nice. I was drinking tequila and mezcal and was pleased with the options for both. My DC declared the beer list adequate. The menus (regular and raw bar) looked great, I could have ordered everything. They suggested 3-4 dishes per person which was about right. We tried:

  • Silver Queen Corn (parmesan, bone marrow, bonito, aioli, hot sauce) – loved this one, fantastic flavor combo, will get again
  • Octopus a la Plancha (charred onion vinaigrette, potato tostones) – beautifully tender octopus, yes!
  • Live Santa Barbara Uni (dashi, yuzu, chicharron) – delicious fresh uni. I am thrilled that they have live uni on the menu and the portion was fair. Seafood this pristine could do with less accouterment though, it can speak for itself.
  • Cucumber Salad (feta, buttermilk, spicy peppers) – this one was recommended by the bartender and we enjoyed it
  • Parker House Rolls (yellow chives & Chinese sausage) – delicious parker house rolls! Maybe the best I have ever had. I’d say they could use a bit more sausage but the taste was perfect.
  • Monkfish Biryani (basmati rice, saffron, cashews, cardamom) – large dish. The flavors and consistency of the rice were right on. Could have used a bit more monkfish though.
  • Farro Kimchi Fried Rice (egg, scallion, bean sprouts, Thai herbs) – another hearty dish, but probably our least favorite of the evening. Not enough spice from the kimchi.

My DC didn’t like raw items, but that menu looked really great. I’d probably stick to veg and raw bar items next time to explore those further.

It was packed on a Tuesday which is impressive for this time of the year. It is good that they take some reservations as I hate dealing with the Toro wait. Some of the aggressive Toro crowd seems to have followed them across the river, but hopefully that mellows over time. I can’t wait to visit again to try the live scallop, king crab, charred avocado, etc.

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#2

We had a rare lunch date yesterday without spring onion and sat at the bar. Pleasant bartender, but we went during the 1 pm lunchtime crush so it took a while to get a drink order in. I was very happy to see Lambrusco and B was happy with his Nightshift. Poke was quite nice, with 3 different pickled sides (daikon, cabbage, radish) and a kinda weird addition of quinoa. I thought the poke was over-sauced, but B loved it. My entree was the chow fun with fermented black bean and his was the fried chicken sandwich. There was no artistry to plating the sandwich at all, which looked quite bleak and thrown onto the plate. Fortunately, it was tasty according to B but he would have loved more spicy peppers on it. The chow fun was flavorful but SALTY. I’ve cooked with fermented black bean and I know that you basically need a teaspoon to flavor a dish. The dish was overflowing with black bean so they need to either ratchet down the bean or add more noodle. We ran into friends who came in after us and they had also ordered the chow fun, found it salty and advised a neighboring table against ordering it. We didn’t provide feedback because we were enjoying ourselves and didn’t want to appear like we were vying for a comp. Despite my somewhat tepid review, we would go back in a minute and I think spring onion would enjoy the loud festive vibe.

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#3

I had lunch at Little Donkey recently. We thought the Jamaican Jerk Chicken and the Spicy Thai Noodles were good, but we both agreed the Wok-Fried Lamb Tips were absolutely delicious. We each had beer (lunch) so I didn’t get to sample any of the cocktails.

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#4

I just noticed this posting, and the food and the reports seem very promising. So I looked at their website, and it seems that they only offer stools with no backs. Am I wrong? We find seats without backrests unattractive.

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#5

My DC very recently had knee surgery so we would not have been able to sit on stools. I’m glad I didn’t look at the website! There are tall tables with stools, but there are also regular sized tables against the walls. We sat in a corner table and my DC was able to put his leg up on the bench. And I sat on a chair with a back. They do take reservations, I’m sure you could ask for a regular table.

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#6

Thanks!

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#7

We’ve asked for a regular table when we’ve walked in, too, and always gotten one. We’ve avoided peak hours, though.

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#8

The poke is a bit different, but my spring onion loves it. Keep an eye out for interesting crudo that appear from time to time. Had barnacles recently, looking a bit like prehistoric dinosaur toes.

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#9

We eat at Little Donkey off and on, and generally enjoy the food. They are an ambitious outfit and occasionally their ambition exceeds their ability, but they hit the target surprisingly often. Yesterday we had excellent carnitas topped with a perfect sunny-side-up egg, along with “black bean toast” (toast smeared with an excellent mash of black beans and butter), and “thai pork tacos” with mint , cilantro, etc., atop some very tasty ground pork. It was very satisfying and at $26 for the food, a very good value.

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#10

To keep the donkey discussion under one roof, here’s a link to another thread:

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#11

Random comments based on some further recent experiences at Little Donkey:

  1. On the brunch menu they have a side of eggs (two) for $4, and a side of toast for $3. You can make a very good, inexpensive, light breakfast of that. A further side of excellent patatas bravas costs $6, but is enough potatoes for two.

  2. I ventured for the first time into their raw seafood territory today. Their oysters were well-shucked, but their mignonette was so overpoweringly strong and vinegary that it seemed dangerous to even have it on the same plate. (I’m a pure-oyster guy, but I do taste the other offerings on the platter afterwards to see what it was that I didn’t miss. To their credit, there was no cocktail sauce offered.)

  3. Their tuna poke suffered from a heavy hand with the gochujang, a little of which goes a long way. The small cubes of tuna were swimming in the stuff, and were no match for it. The pickled bean sprouts on top offered only slight textural contrast, and added further to the sour taste diversion. It was only after scraping off the sauce that I was able to tell what they seemed to be taking such pains to disguise: the gleaming, slightly translucent pieces of tuna were of excellent quality.

  1. There’s a slightly inconsistent quality to all their endeavors. Some servers are knowledgeable, others not so much. (One of them, when asked, informed me that the caviar in their $22 caviar sandwich, was “salmon”, and only after I requested that he check did he come back to say it was sturgeon. He was unable to provide further details on geography or type.) A dish can be plated one way on one occasion, and differently on another. Their black bean toast can have significantly different amounts of black bean butter on it on different occasions. The side eggs can be flecked with a lovely mix of paprika and black pepper at one time and appear naked at another.

It makes you respect places like Oleana even more, as they turn out dishes of consistent quality year after year (over two or more decades) – deviled eggs, sultan’s beef: I’m thinkin’ of you.

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#12

those deviled eggs with tuna and sultan’s beef have been consistently amazing for decades. I’d add the fried mussels and the spinach falafel to the list of Oleana Hall of Fame.

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#13

Yes, indeed.

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#14

Based on only 2 visits, we found a bit more consistency. We still marvel at some of the off beat dishes, like barnacle, that we’ve never encountered before.

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#15

I don’t want anybody to misunderstand what I’m saying: they’re a very good, admirably ambitious outfit, and I highly recommend that everybody eat there. But they’re also a somewhat flawed outfit, as detailed above. These are easily fixed flaws, though, and I hope they’ll make the small, necessary fixes.

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#16

My LIKE-dislike relationship with Little Donkey continues (and I choose the capitalization deliberately).

  1. I think their food, while generally good, is busy: there’s too much activity on every plate. Example: Their long beans claim they have ginger, but the saucing (a sweet black-bean affair) is so heavy that that flavor is lost.

  2. Their short-rib vindaloo is almost on point. I’m a vindaloo purist – it’s a Portuguese-Goan dish that absolutely requires a marriage of fatty meat with garlic and vinegar (my expulsion from Chowhound was partly based on my insistence in this point) – and the LD version is close to being good. But it wasn’t vinegary enough (the pickled veggies that came with it, as compensation, were not good enough), and the dish was served shockingly lukewarm (in temperature, not spiciness) .

  3. Their Parker House rolls are very, very good. Go there just for them.

  4. Their staff continue to puzzle me. As with any small-plates place, sequencing is an issue, but I have had problems at LD that I have not had elsewhere. On a previous occasion my caviar sandwich emerged after all the other dishes had been polished off. Recently the branzino – spelled “bronzino” on the menu, a possible attempt at wit, or just a typo – emerged fifteen minutes after all the other plates, many heavier than it, were polished off. On both occasions, the server proudly claimed credit for the sequence.

  5. I am not a fan of their cocktails.

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#17

That small plates sequencing thing can be so annoying. If I feel strongly about it I now discuss it with my server. Some friends and I were recently in Montreal (must write up!!) and the server told us what he recommended as the sequence – which was spot on – and we all thought that was great and felt very well taken-care of. No surprises.

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#18

Yep, I need to order better.

(And good to have you posting again after a brief silence.)

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#19

Please do write up! Though we will always hit Toqué! and Olive et Gourmando when we visit Montreal, we need some additional options.

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#20

Another good brunch at Little Donkey, again slightly marred by their sequencing of dishes (despite, following GretchenS’s excellent advice, our offering explicit instructions). I had a terrific razor clam ceviche served in the shell – the clam flesh chopped into small tender bits and topped with very finely chopped red peppers, something citrusy, and micro cilantro. I stuck the end of a shell in my moth and just sucked each sucker in. Very enjoyable. I’d go back for two of those and call it a light brunch. My wife started with some excellent yogurt, topped with something finely chopped and candied, and served alongside some terrifically crunchy, brown-buttery granola. She had their version of toad-in-the-hole to follow, 90% of which works harmoniously and brilliantly. The “hole” is made in a thick slice of banana bread, caramelized on the bottom, and served with maple-habanero sausage on the side. The sweet-caramelly-spicy tastes of the two go beautifully together. But that friggin’ toad was an unwanted guest at this party. I’m not convinced that a fried egg at the center is the best thing with which to crown this dish – perhaps something very softly scrambled, almost custardy?

I had a lot of time to contemplate the question because my second dish, their excellent breakfast torta (with cheddar, a runny egg, thick lamb bacon) didn’t emerge till my wife was halfway through her t-in-the-h, and that too after asking the waitress to track it down. It’s a fantastically tasty, fantastically messy sandwich, especially if you’re a radical like me, ignore the steak knife they provide, and simply pick it up, bite into it, and let the egg yolk run down your hand. (I do lick the yolk off, though – I’m not an animal.)

My wife had some coffee-based (with rum, I think) drink that was a nice companion to her food. I had some mezcal based concoction that was on the harsh side, but what’s a weekend without a little punishment?

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