A fresh re-start
Taverna Berrocal reopens this week, serving tapas and a new lunch menu to appeal to a wider variety of diners.
“Welcome to the Renaissance!” a server announces upon our entrance to a private tasting at Taverna Berrocal.
The cozy restaurant, almost hidden on a mostly residential street behind the Hillside Center off Northeast 25th Avenue and Silver Springs Boulevard, has been closed since March and reopens this week with a new menu offering tapas and Euro-Peruvian specialties.
During his time away, owner/chef Juan Berrocal cooked with chefs in Peru and Central America. He researched contemporary dishes and traditional meals to curate ingredients and come up with ideas for his new tapas menu.
“Peru,” Berrocal explained, “is coming into its own as a culinary epicenter. It’s very multicultural with Spanish and indigenous influences. The vegetables we use, the ingredients and preparations, including over 3,000 types of potatoes and hundreds of different peppers, relate more to the altitude at which they’re grown than by season.”
Andean decor fills the small eatery, along with a poster of a legendary Peruvian singer, Berrocal’s father, Juan Isidoro Berrocal, aka El Cholo Berrocal. Papa, whom Berrocal calls “the Elvis of Peru,” wasn’t around much when he grew up, and his grandmother’s stern discipline was all that could tame the rebellious Juanito.
Born in New York, Berrocal grew up in Caravelí, a small town in the mountains outside the southern Peruvian city of Arequipa. He learned firsthand about homestyle traditional dishes from his grandmother and helped her in her restaurant.
“I’m a lover of the cuisine,” Berrocal professed. “I don’t do this to become rich or anything like that; I’m not like that. I do this because the kitchen changed my life.”
Over the years, the Cordon Bleu-trained chef has worked with prestigious chefs in Michelin-rated restaurants in Spain, France and Italy. He cooked in Parisian kitchens and lived in Caserta, Italy, near Naples, where he learned the particulars of regional Italian cooking. He even ran his own restaurant in Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands.
Almost 60, Berrocal said he wants to leave his three children the legacy of a fine dining restaurant he’s created himself. In the past, he’s tried to partner with investors, and he’s even worked in some American restaurants, but collaborating has historically led to shortcuts Berrocal refuses to make.
From his garnishes of edible flowers and delicate baby sprouts to seafood delicacies, Berrocal’s haute cuisine-meets-comfort food comes through for foodies who are weary of prefab, truck-delivered dinners and fattening shortcuts like piling on cheese, butter and goopy sauces to make a dish more filling than flavorful.
“It really kills my spirit as a chef the way they cook,” he said of past employers. “They don’t care about the health or body. They just care about money.”
At Taverna Berrocal, Berrocal insists that he prepares his dishes with locally sourced produce and meats and, “I buy my seafood fresh.’’
Berrocal curates herbs and other ingredients to showcase earthy flavors, such as cilantro, sage and cumin, in fusion-y dishes colonized by Euro-continental touches and techniques, much like Berrocal’s patria of Peru.
Berrocal’s high standards and experience have contributed to his Ocala restaurant receiving almost perfect reviews on Google. Rough spots with service and pricing have beleaguered the independent restaurateur. He laments these difficulties and attributes them to challenges with hiring the right people.
But that was then, Berrocal assured. He said he’s thrilled with his new team and is raring to begin the rebirth of his eatery with Peruvian, Mediterranean and Spanish tapas.
The menu will vary from week to week, but you can expect to find linguine with vongole (fresh mini clams); roasted chicken; ceviche; and causa relleno, a layered potato, tuna and avocado Peruvian staple.
“We decided to serve tapas to offer Ocala a more affordable dining experience, and we will also begin serving lunch,” the chef announced, adding that the new hours will be from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch and from 5 to 9 p.m. for dinner.
Diners new to the Taverna Berrocal experience will discover a diminutive but harmoniously decorated eatery with homey and refined touches and natural, intimate lighting.
Oh, and prepare for love at first sight upon laying eyes on Berrocal’s artful presentation.
Berrocal clicks off all the boxes when it comes to aesthetics: He creates height on the plate, cuts meat horizontally, plays with textures, uses contrasting colors and creates floral arrangements with edible garnishes and decorations.
On our visit, we found soft comfort in the quinoa vegetarian soup that featured a heavenly broth and just a sprinkle of Andean grain that can be, when undercooked, a bit rough and springy. Not in Berrocal’s hands. His quinoa has an easy mouthfeel. The soup also balanced the starchiness of sweet potatoes with aromatic cumin and leek flavors while making friends with carrots, turnips, garlic, onions and tomatoes.
Our salad arrived fresh and crisp, and Chef Berrocal’s homemade red and green pepper dressing offered just the right amount of zing without being heavy-handed or oily. We luxuriated in his creamy, delicately flavored, risotto with lobster and scallops seared just right.
Cooking with the rocoto pepper is a Peruvian tradition and Berrocal’s stuffed rocoto with grass-fed ribeye beef might be hot on the tongue to some. A granita made with fresh berries and chopped ice thoughtfully and pleasantly cooled our mouths after tasting the piquant star of this dish.
Last, but not least, his mousse-like pots de la crème, made with high-quality chocolate from Cuzco, Peru, was lusciously transcendent.
Overall, you’ll feel comfy and well-attended at Berrocal. At the end of the meal and even after you arrive home, you will feel pleasantly full and nourished after eating at Taverna Berrocal.
Taverna Berrocal is located at 2515 NE Third St., Ocala. To learn more, visit facebook.com/NouvelleCuisine1964 or call (352) 421-9311.