Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Little Donkey, Boston

On my recent trip to Boston, in addition to some large group dining, I had a chance to plan a meal for just myself and one other guest.  I immediately picked Little Donkey, a "Global Tapas" restaurant located in Central Square, just a short walk from our office.

I picked Little Donkey for a couple reasons, besides just the location.  The entire menu sounded fascinating, but there were two items that I really, really, really wanted to try (spoiler: epic Parker House rolls, and a cookie dough dessert served on a beater!).  I had it on my list intending to go with a larger group, since the tapas style and cocktail focus lend themselves to groups, but I wasn't ever able to get a booking for my larger group, so, when I had the chance to go with just one person, I took it.

Little Donkey is a pretty interesting concept, open basically all day, for dinner nightly, lunch during the week, and brunch on the weekends.  They even serve until midnight.  It is owned by Chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette, James Beard winning chefs who also ran Clio, my absolute favorite Boston restaurant that I even declared my "Meal of the Year" in 2014.  I was eager to try another one of their establishments, even though the concept is radically different from the upscale Clio I had visited before.  The chefs describe it as a place where they can "cook whatever the hell they want to cook any time they want to cook it".  They are having fun here, and, well, it shows.
(Part of) Our Feast.
Little Donkey was a fun experience, with many unique offerings, but I don't think I'm likely to return, as it didn't wow me overall.  The food was well executed, the service great, but the overall atmosphere wasn't really for me, and I just wished it was a bit better than it was.  That said, there is something to be said for having the experience of sitting in public, sipping from a flask, and eating cookie dough from a beater.  Yes, those things happened.  Keep reading.

I am glad I visited.

Setting

Donkey Sign.
Little Donkey is located in Central Square, on a street full of restaurants.  While I didn't see a sign that actually said "Little Donkey", it wasn't exactly hard to find, as, well, there was sign with a big donkey head on it.
Interior.
Inside is open.  Entirely open.  The front has an active bar with drop in seating, the back side has the open kitchen.  The rest of the space is assorted tables.  The floor is hard wood planks, the tables are hard wood, and the walls are concrete.  Even the ceiling seemed to be a hard surface.

You might guess where this is going.  It was loud.  Really loud.

The bar was noisy, the kitchen was noisy, and the music, trendy tunes from the 90s, was blaring.

My guest and I had an early seating, 6pm, and even then, it quickly became impossible to hear each other, when seated at a small table for two.  I'm not sure how a party larger than two could possibly interact with each other.
Table.
We were seated at a small table along one wall, with a bench on one side, chair on the other.  Tables were pre-set with share plates (since everything is tapas style), a regular fork and knife, and a small fork (for the signature raw bar).

Tables were very close together, and given the noise level, we could hear everything our neighbors were saying (well, as clearly as we could hear anything).  This also made it very easy to check out other dishes, as they were just a few inches away.

Service is done a bit differently at Little Donkey.  There was one dedicated water and bus boy for the floor, a dedicated server per table, and a slew of runners who brought out dishes as soon as they were ready.  This model was highly effective, as we were never without water, our food was all delivered hot and fresh, and our server had time to chat about the menu without worried about someone else's food getting cold in the pass.

Service was very good overall, and each runner who brought out a dish described it as they set it down, and paused a moment to make sure we had no questions.  As they knew about my allergy, each and every one told me, with every dish they brought out, that it was "watermelon free", or "allergy safe", or "no watermelon".  My dining companion thought this got old, but, I really appreciated the constant reassurance.

Drinks

Little Donkey is known for both their food and their drinks.  They have an interesting cocktail program.  Note that I don't say a sophisticated cocktail program, but, it surely is interesting.  And, uh, many are Instagram-worthy, starting with the one dubbed, "The One in a Grapefruit", with a menu description that simply reads "With stuff we really like....".  I knew this was a cocktail served, literally, in a grapefruit.  People *love* to take photos of this one, and it looked like every other table had one on it.  And I'm sure, this is how it works.  Someone sees it, says, "Oh, I'll have the one in the grapefruit", and, well, it spreads.  

Once we were seated and were offered water, I asked the person offering water what was in the grapefruit.  He looked like a deer in headlights, and said he didn't know, but he'd find out.  He quickly ran away, and can back, mumbling something about rum and Pacifico.  When I followed up asking about another cocktail listed on the menu without any details, a nightly special, he again scampered off.  It was then that I realized that he wasn't our server, and was just the water guy, and, I believe, fairly new.  Ooops.  He was the only service staff member who floundered all night.

Anyway, interesting cocktails, for sure.
Sparkling Water.
As I mentioned, immediately once we were seated, we were offered still or sparkling water by the water/bus boy.  We opted for sparkling, and were provided a jug of house sparkling water from which we could refill our glasses as we wished.  I really appreciated this, as I am a big sparkling water drinker, and servers can rarely keep up with my consumption.  I also appreciated complimentary house sparkling water.

Also notable is that as soon as we finished our bottle, and fresh one was brought out.  The dedicated water person staffing was very effective here.
K.O.'D. $15.
"Nightly flask cocktail, limited availability."

In the end, I selected the K.O.'D, described that night as a play on a negroni, and one of my server's favorites.

I did not realize that when it was listed as a "nightly flask cocktail" that that meant, literally, that I'd be served a cocktail in a flask.  Ridiculous and novelty item for sure, but, uh, it worked on me.  I had way too much fun casually sipping on my flask in polite company.

I was so distracted by the form factor that I didn't pay all that much attention to the cocktail.  It was fine, good enough, but I didn't note anything in particular, besides, uh, the flask.

Novelty item #1: Success.
Beachcomber (non-alcoholic). $6.
"Grapefruit, cinnamon, sage, cardamom grenadine."

My dining companion went for the single non-alcoholic option on the menu, the "Beachcomber".  It was served with a lot of ice, and a sage leaf for garnish.

He liked the first sip, got annoyed by how sweet it was after a second, and ended up diluting it with water from the table, and thinking it was better that way, but still not remarkable.

Food

Food Menus.
The menu at Little Donkey is broken into many, many categories: raw bar, charcuterie, hors d'oeuvres, pastas & grains, vegetables & salads, meat & fish, and, dessert.  Besides the extensive raw bar, each category has 5-7 choices.  I honestly don't know how to describe the menu.  There is no one single cuisine really reflected.  The choices are all over the place.  Like I said, chefs cooking what they wanna cook.  And it all sounded incredible.

Dishes are designed to be shared, and are small plates, although some categories (like the pastas, meat, and fish) are bigger portions than others.  We were advised to pick 2-3 per person.

We originally ordered 4 total, 2 from the raw bar, 2 from charcuterie, but it wasn't quite enough, so we added on a noodle dish, which was a bit too much.  Narrowing down our choices was really, really hard, and we skipped many categories entirely.

Categories we skipped were hors d'oeuvres, vegetables & salads, and meat & fish.  We didn't skip because things didn't sound good, only because we were only two people, and had to choose only a few items.  From the hors d'oeuvres, I really wanted the foie gras (seared, with green tomato jam) and the incredible looking bbq scallop.  From the vegetables & salads, I really wanted the white asparagus with bearnaise and the shaved artichokes salad with radishes, kohlrabi, and ginger miso dressing, but my dining companion just wasn't feeling the vegetables.  And finally, from the meat & fish, the burger sounded ridiculous (topped with buffalo pickles, onion soup mayo, seared foie gras, and jalapeno chips!), and the octopus a la plancha with charred onion vinaigrette was nearly impossible to pass up.  But we did.

Raw Bar

Little Donkey takes a lot of pride in the raw bar, which was its own menu selection, on the front of our menu board.  Options here included a few basics like a slew of oysters and clams, plus a bunch of raw preps of composed dishes like crudo (scallop or hamachi), ceviche (black bass or razor clam), tartare (tuna), poke (tuna), and big ticket favorites like uni (served in the shell, with chicharrons), stone crab claws, shrimp cocktail, and more.

We selected two items from the raw bar, the king crab (because I love it, and rarely get it) and a seafood we were unfamiliar with: percebes.  We weren't impressed with either, which was sad, as the raw bar is supposed to be a highlight here.

The raw bar items did arrive quickly after we ordered, literally, 2 minutes after our drinks.
Percebes / Old Bay Mayo. $19.
First up was the item neither of us had ever heard of.  Percebes.  Also known as "Goose Barnacles". They are a delicacy in Spain and Portugal.

We asked our server about the dish, and he described it as sorta cross between snow crab and surf clams.  Fascinating.  I was fairly certain I wouldn't love it, but it is rare for there to be something entirely new to me on a menu, and thus, I ceased the opportunity.  Plus, served with old bay mayo?  Yes!

When this dish hit our table, my dining companion exclaimed, "this doesn't even look like food".  He demanded that I try first.  The server who brought over the order did explain how to eat it, telling us not to crack the shells, and to just bite the meat off.

The percebes were steamed but served chilled, on a bowl of crushed ice.  They were still in their strange looking shells.  They came in different sizes, and were purpleish with orange tips.  I'll admit, these were scary looking, but, I dove in, undeterred.

And ... I was confused.  Somehow, I expected the flesh to pull out of the shell a bit easier.  Instead, I had to chew on it.  It had the texture of a clam, for sure.  Chewy.  The flavor ... that I couldn't pinpoint.  My dining companion thought they tasted like smoked salmon.  To me, it was more like crab I guess?  I don't know.  It was strange.  It wasn't particularly good, and I wasn't a fan of the texture.   Still, not offensive, not fishy, fun to try, interesting to eat from the shell, but ... why?  Maybe there is a reason these aren't often on menus.  We didn't finish them.

I did love the old bay mayo though, creamy, flavorful, and I wished it hadn't been cleared away, I would have gladly consumed it alongside our other items.
King Crab / Louis Dressing. $19.
Our second raw bar item was the king crab, which arrived a minute after the percebes.

The king crab had also been steamed, and was served in the shell, although cut into bite size chunks, and extremely easy to extract.  For a lazy version of king crab, this was nice.  No effort required here.

But the king crab was fairly unremarkable.  It wasn't fishy, it was fine, but, just kinda boring.  The portion seemed small for $19.  The louis dressing was creamy but not particularly flavorful, extremely mild.

We finished this dish, ok, I finished this dish, dipping it in more old bay mayo from the percebes, because I couldn't let king crab go to waste, but neither of us really were into it.

Charcuterie

The charcuterie section of the menu is not what you'd expect.  No, there are no sliced meats on it at all.  No pates.

Instead, the choices we had were a pizza bagel (obviously, a fancy one), "Vietnamese bologna" which was actually a fried squid prep with peanuts and chunks of the bologna, thai sausage, parker house rolls, and BLT lettuce wraps, the later two which we selected.  I *really* wanted to try the vietnamese bologna, as I adore bologna (don't judge!) and crispy calamari sounded great too, but, alas, we had to narrow down our choices, and it didn't make the cut.

Our share plates (and my dining companion's cutlery) were cleared out between the raw bar and our next courses by a fairly awkward water guy, who brought replacements.  He struggled the entire night with inconsistent things like taking one person's silverware and not the other, bringing new napkins when we still had some, clearing plates before we were done, etc.  Clearly, new, and not reflected of the other staff members who were all extremely knowledgable and on top of things.
Parker House Rolls. $8.
"Yellow chives & Chinese sausage."

The Parker House rolls were probably the second reason I selected Little Donkey, besides the dessert.  I really, really adore Parker House rolls (which I did actually have at the Parker House at a wedding once, and I've had at Haven in Oakland, at The Village Pub, and even at Alexander's), and I knew they served an interesting version here.  These were the best I've had.

They get rave reviews online, so these were the only item, besides dessert, that I demanded we get.  I'm glad I did.

I took one bite of my roll, and my eyes rolled to the back of my head, I'm sure.  Its funny, I'm not really a bread eater (as in, I don't go for sandwiches, buns with my burgers, etc), but sometimes, wow, I just love bread.  And this was one of those times.

The rolls were hot, served fresh out of the oven.  Perfectly golden brown, slightly crispy on the side edges, soft, sweet, and fluffy inside.  I loved the sweet flavor and the texture.  The tops were incredible, super crispy, glazed, buttery, and covered in huge flakes of salt.  The salt just pushed these over the top.

The sausage however was the downside.  Under the top layer, baked in, was a thin layer of ground sausage bits.  I didn't like the flavor at all.  I'm not sure where the yellow chives were.

My dining companion didn't really care for these, also because of the sausage.  He did say they reminded him a Japanese sweet rolls.

I wished these didn't have the sausage, but, even with the sausage, they were the highlight of the meal.  Incredible execution of the rolls.
BLT Lettuce Wraps. $12.
"Lamb bacon, pimento cheese, tomato jam, pickled red onion."

The second "charcuterie" item we selected was BLT lettuce wraps, which arrived about 5 minutes after our rolls, perfect pacing really, so I could savor my roll and not rush into this.

This was actually the most adventurous item we ordered for me.  Yes, even given the fact that I ordered a crazy mollusk in a shell, and a random drink from a flask.  Why was this such a leap?  I hate lamb.  I've tried so, so, so hard to like lamb.  I've tried it prepared many ways.  I've tried it in New Zealand, land of the lambs.  I've tried it at everyone's favorite places.  And I just can't stand it.  I hate the taste, and I loathe the smell.

But I thought, if I was ever going to like lamb, bacon form would be it.  Plus, this was a bit of a compromise order, I still really wanted vegetables, and my dining companion didn't, so I knew that even if I didn't love the bacon part, I could still make tasty lettuce wraps.  With pimento cheese.  And tomato jam.  Um, yes?

I had a pretty strong moment of fear when the table next to us ordered this, and I smelt the lamb immediately.  It smelt, like lamb.  It was repulsive.  Ours smelt just as bad.  Uh-oh.

But, I still tried it.

And ... the bacon wasn't awful.  Yes, it still tasted a bit like lamb.  But more mild than any other application I've had of it.  The bacon was coated in flavorful spices, and was a really awesome crispy yet chewy texture.  I tried a bite plain, and I put a chunk in a lettuce wrap, but I certainly didn't want more.

The other ingredients were an interesting assortment.  Fresh crispy large leaves of lettuce from which to make our wraps.  Very tart pickled red onion.  Flavorful tomato jam.  Creamy enough pimento cheese (although, not very flavorful).  And, although not listed on the menu, kewpie mayo.  I was thrilled to see they sourced kewpie mayo!

I did enjoy making the wraps, and much like drinking from the flask, I found the experience of eating this fun.  And the ingredients all combined together well, crispy, fresh, creamy, and quite flavorful.  Even leaving out the bacon (and the onions, they were too tart for me), I really enjoyed my little wraps, although, uh, I was essentially eating lettuce, mayo, and pimento cheese.  Not so healthy.  As I was dunking lettuce into the pot of mayo, I did observe that was a theme of the meal for me: dunking things in mayo and aioli.  3 of our 4 dishes involved pots of mayo.  Ooops?

I'm really glad I tried this dish, and enjoyed it more than I expected, even though I still don't like lamb.  My second favorite.

Pasta & Grains

We were still a bit hungry at this point, and wanted just one more thing.  I just wanted a little bit more, and advocated again for the veggie dishes, but, my dining companion had his eyes on other things, and since I had dictated most of our choices, and since I didn't really want much more, I had him make our final decision.  He picked an item from the pasta & grains section.

Our options here included matzo ball ramen (?!), kimchi fried rice, and halibut biryani, none of which really called out to me, plus gnocchi with english peas and morels in a cream sauce that did sound fantastic but he didn't want, and a signature dish, manti, which is a meat ravioli from Istanbul, that I did originally plan to get, until I found out it is filled with a mix of beef and lamb.  He selected the final option, chow fun noodles.
Wok Fried Chow Fun. $18.
"Rice noodles, tofu, asparagus, ramps, Calabrian chili, black beans."

Noodles are rarely the dish I'd pick, but, this did have some tasty veggies in the mix, and I was curoius about the black bean sauce, so I went along with the order, even though I didn't expect to eat much of it.

It was delivered piping hot, clearly fresh out of the wok.  I again appreciated this aspect of Little Donkey, just like our Parker House Rolls, it came out as soon as it was ready.

This wasn't really a pretty dish, nor one served with any specific pizzaz.  Just,  a big plate of noodles, with lots of stuff mixed in.  The veggies were all cooked well, and I picked out some asparagus, ramps, bean spouts, and onions, all with a tasty, salty bean sauce.  There were some fairly spicy bits of Calabrian chilis in the mix that I enjoyed, as well as cubes of tofu which I avoided.

Overall, it was well executed, hot and fresh, but just not for me.

Dessert

Little Donkey has a very unique dessert menu, with 6 items, but, I actually didn't even ask to see the menu.  I knew exactly what I wanted.  And it was the reason why we were there.  Ok, maybe not THE reason, but, a strong factor.  I'm a dessert-o-holic, and when I find a unique dessert, that can dictate my restaurant choice.  Don't judge.  I have my priorities.

For completeness, other options were "mango curd Ritz cracker sandwiches" (yeah, what?!), a decadent chocolate cremeux, sorbet of the day (yawn), "Strawberries & Cream" with matcha pound cake, and coconut profiteroles smothered in hot fudge that seemed to be headed out to nearly every table around us.

But my eyes were on only one item: the cookie dough.
Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. $8.
"Milk espuma, cocoa nibs."

The cookie dough comes served on a beater.  Yes, on a beater.  Consider the whimsy from the cocktail program, serving drinks in flasks and grapefruits, and apply it to dessert, and that is what you have here.  A beater, absolutely loaded up with (egg-free) chocolate chip cookie dough, with a mound of milk espuma on the side, topped with cocoa nibs.

As I frequently say, I don't really like cookies.  But cookie dough is another thing entirely.  As is, well, anything left in a mixing bowl.  Or on a beater.  Or on a spatula.  I was (ok, still am), the girl who always sat in the kitchen as my mom was baking, and demanded that every utensil was passed my way for licking.  Only my mom never left me quite this much.  This had my name all over it, except that it was chocolate based, and I don't generally eat chocolate in the evenings.  But I made an exception for this.

I ordered this intending to share it with my fellow diner, but, he avoids chocolate in the evenings even more strictly than I do, and when he saw how much chocolate was involved, he tried one bite, and said he was full anyway.  This was a very, very large portion of cookie dough for a single person (as in, I read a bunch of reviews where people claim it is too much for two people, and to only order in a larger group), but, uh ... I finished it, save a few chocolate chips.

Because.  Soft cookie dough.  On a beater.   ZOMG.  It was too fun not to finish.

That said, it wasn't amazing.  The cookie dough was soft and sweet, but not really as buttery or inherently flavorful as I would have wanted.  It needed a touch of vanilla, a touch of salt, and ... more butter?  But still, soft, sweet, cookie dough.

It had way too many chocolate chips though.  Maybe I was more aware because I don't normally eat chocolate at night and was worried about this, but, the ratio was just off.  Too many chips.

The espuma was insane though.  It tasted ... like milk.  Fluffy milk.  I know that doesn't necessarily sound like it should be amazing, but, it was.  Milk isn't supposed to be a foam!  It wasn't like whipped cream, it was ... milk!  My fellow diner took as much espuma as possible while I was busy with the cookie dough, only leaving behind the part with the nibs.  He loved it.

The nibs were great, I love nibs, and love the crunch they add, but, again, I was worried about caffeine, so I somewhat wished they weren't there.

Overall, this was good, it was unique, it was playful, but it wasn't as amazing as I had hoped.  I devoured it, and literally gave myself a stomach ache, and still can't believe I finished it, mostly because it was just too damn fun to eat off the beater.  In public.  Even though people walking by the table looked at my funny.  Yes, I could have used a spoon to take it off the beater, but ... what fun is there in that?
Little Donkey Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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