OCCO: it sounds… I don’t know, Portuguese. Or maybe Italian. And then there’s the matter of the flag that brands this 200-seater in Orléans. It’s green, white and red. So yes, Italian. Though upon closer inspection, the red is really more pink. Then we notice the photos: white clapboard homes, lighthouses, a frigid ocean. There’s also the matter of the menu – burgers, cod cakes, chowder, tacos, fish and chips. No veal saltimbocca in sight. Something doesn’t jibe.
The flag, we soon learn from our server, is the Newfoundland Tricolour. Yep. The Pink, White and Green of the Roman Catholic Organization of the Star of the Sea Association (thank you Wikipedia) and OCCO is the acronym for the no-nonsense sounding Orléans Catering Company. It’s run by Chef Mark Steele, a Newfoundlander whose c.v. includes culinary instructor at Algonquin College, executive chef at the Ottawa Marriott and Hilton hotels, and various roles in the Fairmont family. In early 2015, Steele left hotel work to start a little catering and take-away operation on St. Joseph Boulevard. Last year, he took over the monster space vacated by Yummy Yummy Teppanyaki on Innes Road.
OCCO Kitchen is a generic-looking space, mostly brown and grey with some orange accents, barn board, faux brick, filled in with dozens (and dozens) of tables. The menu is a double-sided one pager, laminated. Service is young, super friendly, and, when asked about stuff like the bread, very good at saying, many times over, that “Everything’s homemade. Even the pickles.”
Now if someone told me the pickles were made in house anywhere in Ottawa-proper, I’d roll my eyes. But when I hear the pickles, and ketchup, gravy, burger buns, etc., are all made from scratch when I’m seated in a mall-scale restaurant in Orléans, I’m impressed.
They also told me they’re known for their burgers and that their chowder won an award. So I tried both. The latter was fine enough, though hardly award winning stuff, served with a stale puff pastry straw. The burger, on the other hand, was pretty darn fabulous. Mine was called the Hamre, topped with “fresh guacamole, honey pepper mayo, leaves (leaf lettuce), vine tomato, smoked cheddar, and candied bacon” on a fresh cheddar-topped bun. It ticked every Really Good Burger box.
Also impressive were the pogo sticks, mostly for the fact they wrap the cornmeal around Seed to Sausage jalapeno smokies. These ooze out cheese curds as you bite into them, and don’t skimp on the chili heat. Fried up and served with the tangy house ketchup muddled with seedy mustard, they were mighty moreish. We liked just as well, the panko-crusted salt cod cakes sided with a caper mayo and caperberries; and the signature salad with bocconcini had enough mandolin’d and spiralized veggies to make the raw foodist happy.
There are five sorts of tacos, which may or may not be a Newfoundland thing. I’ve tried one – the bean and vegetable fritter taco, topped with the same curlicue candy cane beets and baby pepper rings found on the house salad, plus guacamole and tomatoes, all cocooned in a mini flour tortilla (which tasted not house made). And though there was nothing wrong with it, I think there are better things to order here.
Like the fish and chips. Two filets of cod were perfectly cooked and juicy beneath their beer battering, served with the same caper mayo. The herb fries that came alongside were forgettable, but that fish was perfect. Also well cooked: a square of pork belly. It had the right burnished, crackling coat, and the slightly rendered fat above moist meat, and it came with some pretty good scallops. These rested on grilled vegetables (beans, peppers, cauliflower), which were fine, but the balance of the plate let us down. A coconut-milked squash and parsnip purée was baby-food whipped and uncomfortably sweet, and the orange ‘pearls’ on the plate (molecular spheres) tasted like Tang drink crystals. Still, we liked the principal elements.
As for the wine list, it’s concise and impressively all-Ontario. All are offered by the glass or half litre.
The craft beer and cider list is longer and entirely Ontario, from Vankleek Hill to Picton to Barrie’s Flying Monkeys lagers. Kudos to OCCO for decision to support only craft beer industry and all Ontario.
In truth, I approached this Orléans restaurant with low expectations. Despite repeated attempts to find good eating out east, there’s been little to recommend for a good number of years. Since the terrific Century Bar and Kitchen closed at least a dozen years ago, most anything east of the Aviation Parkway has let me down.
OCCO isn’t a destination restaurant, but for a big boxy eatery in a suburban mall, it was a happy surprise.