Soca is the Venezuelan name for the second harvest of the sugar cane crop. We know this because there’s a sign above Soca Kitchen’s sugar cane juicer machine that says as much, and because co-owner Gustavo Belisario is happy to elaborate. He is Venezuelan. His family farms sugar cane. Photographs of the fields and cane harvest line the stairs. A shot glass of the grassy, slightly sweet, lightly foaming juice comes from the bar, by way of welcome and, I suppose, to support a sense of place.
Belisario’s partner and fiancé is chef Daniela Manrique. She’s Venezuelan-born, Montreal-raised, and Miami-trained. They’ve moved to Ottawa (why ever not) and opened Soca in the space where Pho Van Van (now decamped a block south) used to be.
We were seated at the bar, chatting with Gustavo and examining the menu during our second visit. Just as I was about to ask him why Ottawa was the next logical stop for a couple of young Argentine restauranteurs with Caracas, Montreal, and Miami roots, my date knocked over a glass of water.
It toppled my glass of sugar cane juice and shards of glass covered the wood counter. Many things were soggy, including the once-crisp arepitas that arrive — along with the juice — as a gift from the kitchen. Bar towels appeared, so did a fresh glass of water and another shot of juice. Within one minute, a fresh round of amuse arepitas showed up. My wine was topped up for no reason other than the trauma I’d been through. The clumsy one got another pull of beer.
Within 10 minutes of arriving at Soca, we were hooked for no other reason than the kindness shown — a feeling that has survived successive visits.
But caring service aside — Soca sweats the small stuff and it shows. It ticks off many pleasure boxes: a fine, neighbourly feel; a dark, comfortable room; a well chosen drinks list, and food that’s immensely satisfying at prices that feel fair.
The food has big flavour that speaks mostly of Spain, with bits of Middle East, North Africa, Mexico… Over my visits, the dishes have changed a bit, but it has all come together with considerable sizzle.
The menu leads with a selection of cheese and charcuterie, raw oysters, and prawns. Small plates are varied — gooey empanadas, sausage stews, sweetbreads, clams with crusty bread. There are three salads, four main-sized plates, two desserts.
A side of fried plantain adds starch and fat and a titch of sweet to the tart-heat of a well-balanced snapper ceviche. Here, the hunks of raw fish join forces with neat cubes of sweet potato and strings of red onion, and come plopped on a bed of roughly mashed avocado.
A meal could have been made with the ($12) torta. Possibly my favourite dish, it layered a half dozen vegetables with ribbons of smoky eggplant. Topping the assembly was a fennel slaw and for lubrication, a roasted garlic mayo. Good too was the mushroom salad. Roasted King eryngii, served in long thin slices, muddled up with ribbons of fennel, topped with black garlic chips and doused with a (lightly — thank you) truffle-oiled balsamic vinaigrette.
Dirty rice can seem a chore halfway through a plate of it. Not here. Instead, it’s a delicious jumble of dark, almost bitter, Creole-scented rice mixed with firm chickpeas, sobrassada, and chunks of highly perfumed house-made butifarra sausage, finished with a suggestion of chocolate. Ridiculously good.
Taking milky-soft sweetbreads out of the haute repertoire, Manrique treats them masterfully well, sweetening their offalness with caramelized onion, garlic, cream, a hint of parmigiano, then wraps them in phyllo, fries them up and serves them standing on their log heads anchored with an arugula pesto and crowned with arugula leaves. We hoovered these down.
Other fine dishes: steamed clams bobbing in a broth scented with tarragon and lemon, served with crusty bread; empanadas all browned and buttery, filled with mashed plantain and goat cheese, served with a trio of aioli; roasted chicken on a soft bed of yucca mash, topped with more of that fennel slaw greened with snipped chives, and served with a side bucket of spicy pepper sauce that had sis-boom-bah flavour. Less interesting — the kale-stuffed ravioli paddling in a mushroom broth with a toupé of tempura onions. It was a bit dull of flavour, too puny for a main dish, and felt overpriced at $19. And we found bits of the braised octopus a bit tough.
The standout dessert was a cocoa-strong chocolate cake, semi-cuit, so it oozes when pierced, doused with brandy and served with fiery fanfare.
“Coming Soon,” says the sign at the top of the red staircase, “a second dining room for private parties and overflow.” I should think overflow will be required on a regular basis.