By Megan O’Brien, deputy inside editor
Matt Cunningham will admit he’s entering a crowded space: there are a lot of dumpling houses in Boston. However, the executive chef of Pink Samurai, an Asian-style venue set to open in Jamaica Plain later this month, believes his restaurant’s open-minded approach will set it apart.
“For the most part, [dumpling houses in Boston] stick to the same cookie-cutter model – the same dumplings, same menu, same format,” Cunningham said. “This is a clean slate. A dumpling is just essentially a pasta, really. We’re asking what we can do with that, and it’s literally anything. We’re playing to our creative strengths.”
For Cunningham, this means fusing traditional and contemporary techniques with components of different cultural cuisine. European elements like foie gras and New England influences will sneak their way into the Asian-inspired menu.
Pink Samurai’s 16-seat location at 658 Centre St. will feature a laid-back atmosphere for customers to munch on dumplings and street food.
“It boils down to a really fun, casual place where people can get along and have little snacks and little dishes,” Cunningham said. “We want it to be a neighborhood hangout.”
Although Cunningham played a large role in the conception of Pink Samurai’s menu and general concept, the original idea was his partner Daniel Gerber.
“He wanted a spot for an Asian-inspired dumpling place, and that’s kind of all he knew,” Cunningham said. A mutual friend of the pair suggested Cunningham to Gerber.
“We started talking and got along really well,” Cunningham said. “At that point, I was deciding if I wanted to stick with pop-ups or restaurants, so it came at a good time.”
While the preliminary stages were met with little conflict, the transformation of Pink Samurai from idea to eatery has brought challenges, forcing the pair to postpone the restaurant’s opening two months later than its original September goal.
“There are so many little, tiny moving parts,” Cunningham said. “Nothing major, but it has been one tiny thing after another. That’s been the most frustrating thing. You don’t want to be the restaurant that has to delay opening.”
A host of slight mishaps, however, did not deter Cunningham from sharing his new concoctions this fall. For the past two weeks, the Frogmore in Jamaica Plain has been hosting a Pink Samurai pop-up menu on Friday nights, showcasing items like beef tartare, raw okra salad and popcorn topped with miso butter, bee pollen and nori.
The standouts at last Friday’s event were the braised lamb dumplings with collard green kimchi and honeyed yogurt and a lobster toast “reuben” that began to run low in supply after only an hour.
Still, some patrons, like Emily Ike of Jamaica Plain, wished the preview menu had featured more varied items.
“The dumplings and reuben were really good, but there weren’t a lot of vegetarian options,” Ike said. “It would have been nice to see a few more.”
The pop-up menu is not representative of everything Pink Samurai will offer, according to Cunningham. The restaurant will aim for a 50-50 split between vegetarian and meat-based menu items. He hopes options like house-made tofu will attract vegetarian customers.
“We’re going to play to the area. There are a lot of vegetarians and vegans in Jamaica Plain,” Cunningham said.
The gourmet snacks might have been the main attraction at the late-night event, but Pink Samurai’s dedication to Jamaica Plain did not go unnoticed.
“It feels very due-diligence,” Andres Gopnik, a guest from Jamaica Plain at the Frogmore event, said of Pink Samurai’s attempt to showcase its food despite lacking a physical space to call its own. “They’re doing a lot for the community. I appreciate that.”
Cunningham has been overwhelmed by the positive feedback to his menu. While he is nervous about crowds thinning out, he hopes the response from the Frogmore will translate to Pink Samurai’s opening.
“The first night was relatively full. It was one of the busiest late nights the Frogmore has had,” Cunningham said. “Last week, we packed the place.”
Photo by Scotty Schenck