I really should like Taita.
It's one of only two Peruvian restaurants in the city and it's the newest eatery in Benson, a neighborhood that's quickly becoming a food destination.
The restaurant's focus, seafood, is something I love.
But after three visits, I decided the restaurant's execution needs some work. The best entrees I ate weren't seafood. And though a few of Taita's seafood creations — appetizers especially — were good, my three experiences there veered wildly between great and mediocre.
The restaurant is tiny, with about a dozen wood tables surrounded by white plastic chairs. A banquette lines the east wall. Omaha artist Gerard Pefung created the huge wall murals of koi fish interspersed with graffiti-style faces that give the space character and color.
Before I got to Taita, I researched Peruvian food and learned that the food of Spain, China, Italy, West Africa and Japan are influences. Immigrants to the country modified the cuisine of their homelands with the ingredients available in Peru, which can traditionally include aji peppers, corn, potatoes and quinoa, among others.
One of the first things my dining partner and I noticed was that Taita didn't have a wine list — it doesn't have a liquor license. I tried to keep an open mind as we ate, but the food screamed for a glass of crisp white or dry red. Iced tea, for this diner, didn't cut it.
Chef and owner Jose Dionicio told me in an interview later that Taita plans to offer wine and other spirits by the end of the summer.
We began our first visit with ceviche and pork belly.
My dining partner frequently makes ceviche at home, and she liked Taita's version of the raw fish marinated in acid until it becomes opaque. The snapper had the right amount of chew and a good sprinkling of chopped raw onion and cilantro. It tasted fresh and bright with citrus.
Dionicio told me ceviche is considered the national dish of Peru. The fish he uses, madai, is a New Zealand snapper, and he said it's the highest-quality fish on the menu. The preparation is simple, and the focus is the flavor of the fish. His explanation of both quality and preparation held true — it was the best fish dish I ate.
I was less impressed with my pork chicharron appetizer. Though the roasted pork had a nice texture, it was greasy and could have been crisper. Dry, somewhat fibrous yucca fritters, soft hominy and a salsa criolla — a South American version of salsa made with onions, tomato and lime juice — finished the dish. A second sauce made with black mint tasted great, but there wasn't enough of it.
The serving size also seemed out of proportion for an appetizer: My dining partner and I couldn't put a dent in it knowing how much we still had coming.
Both the main dishes stumbled.
My dining partner's uni risotto had an unappetizingly pink sauce — Dionicio told me later this comes from the prawn heads in the seafood broth. A whole prawn sitting on top of the risotto tasted too fishy to eat.
She liked parts of the dish, including creamy, perfectly cooked risotto and the bite from the arugula that dressed the top. But she had trouble finding the uni, which is sea urchin, and the calamari had a strangely soft texture.
Dionicio said he knows the uni risotto is a rich, complex dish.
The whitefish that night was grouper, and the firm, mild fish came nicely cooked and seasoned, but it was served in a sea of more pink shellfish cream sauce. A side of miso flatbread was both doughy and burned. It wasn't that I minded the flavor of the sauce — I didn't — there was just way too much of it.
Dionicio said he likes to eat fish with lots of sauce, and he's been serving it that way for years.
A dessert — spice cake with roasted peaches and ginger cream — was just OK. The cake had a burned bottom, though the peaches and cream were good.
Most entrees at Taita are around $17. The total for my first visit, with tip, was $80, and that was without any alcohol. My second and third tabs that each included one starter and two entrees were both just shy of $50. It felt spendy.
On my second visit, though, Taita seemed like a different restaurant. Everything we ate was great.
Dionicio's version of fried calamari seemed Japanese-inspired, with a light, crisp breading that reminded me of tempura. An orange-hued sauce spiked with aji pepper and sweetened with agave was great. This time, the calamari was perfectly chewy, as it should be.
He told me the dish isn't made the same way tempura is — Taita doesn't have the equipment for that — but it's certainly a nod to the Japanese breading.
“Calamari has been around, and we have it on the menu because it's a way for us to get people to try different stuff,” he said. “It's familiar.”
It is familiar, and it's also better than other calamari I've had.
My husband dug into his beer-braised lamb, which came with nicely cooked white beans and a delicious green sauce laden with cilantro and another good flavor we couldn't quite identify.
Turns out that flavor was chicha, a homemade, fermented corn alcohol that's popular in South and Central America.
“Chicha is how the Incas got drunk,” Dionicio said, chuckling.
My seared, lightly breaded chicken was hearty but not heavy, moist and extra flavorful. A creamy mound of potatoes and lightly dressed greens and radishes finished the dish. I'd order it again.
Service was spotty on all three visits. On the second and third, our table was the only busy one, and the single server often would disappear for 10 minutes or more. At the conclusion of our second meal, we waited a good 15 minutes, alone in the dining room, before our waitress reappeared to clear our plates and bring the bill.
My third experience at Taita fell somewhere in between my first two. Salmon tiradito, a traditional Peruvian dish similar to ceviche, was the highlight of the meal. Three slim slices of lightly seared salmon, crisp greens, crunchy black caviar and a sauce lightly spiked with truffle made for a delightful starter.
The tiradito in Peru is usually served raw, and Dionicio said Taita lightly sears its salmon belly.
“People can be more comfortable with it that way in Omaha,” he said.
Both my main dish — yellowtail — and my dining partner's — a cake similar to a crab cake but made of sea bass — were overcooked and too dry.
The white yellowtail should have been medium-rare to medium, Dionicio said, but instead my pieces were well-done to the point of dry flakiness. I wish the fish had been moister, because I loved the sweet sauce, a squash puree, and the thick ribbons of fresh carrot on top.
“That's one of our new dishes,” he said. “If you had it again, it would be different.”
My dining partner's two fish cakes came with squash dumplings, which she said were bland and doughy. She'd expected something closer to squash gnocchi.
Dionicio said it's been a challenge getting Midwesterners to try the menu he's serving, though when diners come in with an open mind, they respond well.
“Not many restaurants in Omaha use the ingredients we use,” he said.
He's right. And if Taita could work out its consistency issues, I think it would be successful in getting those stubborn Midwesterners to get adventurous and eat more fish and unfamiliar seafood.
Until that happens though, those diners will likely stick to food, and restaurants, they already know.
Contact the writer:
Copyright ©2013 Omaha World-Herald®. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, displayed or redistributed for any purpose without permission from the Omaha World-Herald.