Little Donkey Wins Best Restaurant Overall

Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

Restaurant Overall
Restaurant in Central Square
Chef Ken Oringer & Jamie Bissonnette
505 Massachusetts Ave., (617) 945-1008

Chefs Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer had already emerged as geniuses of tapas with Boston institution Toro when they decided to open another restaurant in their home city—and, specifically, in Central Square. But what kind of cuisine should be its focus?

According to Bissonnette … no kind.

“We realized we wanted a restaurant that didn’t have a specific national cuisine identity,” he says. “We wanted it to be playful and fun—a mix of cultures, a little bit of everything.”

And that philosophy inspired the name.

“Donkeys are in every culture,” Bissonnette says. “When you say ‘donkey,’ people don’t think of one kind of cuisine—you get five or six different responses. And ‘little’ made it sound like what we wanted the restaurant to be: a companion workhorse that’s a lot of things to a lot of people.”

The menu took inspiration from their travels, as well as the meals they prepare at their own homes, with an emphasis on playfulness. Take the razor clams casino, for instance.

“Clams casino is kind of iconic, and razor clams from Massachusetts are the best in the world,” Bissonnette says. “We make this awesome Portuguese kielbasa and clam dish and wondered, ‘What if we put it back in the shell, casino-style?’”

The black pepper popovers were inspired by the classical roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. They took fat from the meat, rendered it, and made popovers from it … but unlike Yorkshire pudding, which is served hot with roast beef, they serve them cold with their steak tartare, instead of the traditional baguette.

And there’s the octopus a la plancha, their favorite, iconic Spanish seafood dish. Like so many others, they played with it before settling on the final form: The octopus is cooked simply with lots of olive oil, but they char the onions and the potatoes are fried and then smashed. The result is a dish that’s “a little less technical than we’d do elsewhere,” says Bissonnette.

After a decade of collaboration, the two chefs are still learning from each other, suggesting ingredients or techniques that spring from places they’ve been, books they’ve read, all shared in a ceaseless flow of texts between them. As a result, neither will lay claim to any one item on the restaurant’s menu.

“People will say, ‘Which dish is whose?’” Bissonnette says. “They’re not. One of us mentions a dish, another mentions an ingredient, and ultimately, it’s a Little Donkey dish.”

This story originally appeared in the 2018 Scout’s Honored issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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