EL MERCADO * Visit El Mercado´s website by clicking on the logo El Mercado (The Market) stands apart the first moment we see it from afar. Sited on Calle Larga Street, our first view is a light blue wall with a wooden door and window frames. Our initial impression is of a small picturesque place. As we approach, the aroma of fresh baked bread attracts us like a magnet and, almost without noticing, we find ourselves inside. We enter through a hallway. On the left we see the bakery, source of that wonderful scent that we followed. On the right, a handicrafts store sells decorations, accessories and goodies for the kitchen such as marmalades, honey, peppers and more. The bakery´s aroma and the handmade cooking ingredients stimulate our imagination and whet our appetite. Without a conscious thought, we are now hankering for a delicious meal. We continue walking ahead into this building that, initially, had seemed small. We truly hadn´t looked properly. We stumble upon a counter where desserts are prepared in plain sight. Some, freshly baked, are sitting on display, advertising a comment that some elderly relative would usually whisper at meal times, “There is always room for dessert.” A few steps ahead is a drinks counter, displaying all the choices available in El Mercado. As we leave the hallway behind, we can now observe a large space, two stories high, open to the other end of the block, where picture windows portray marvelous views of Cuenca. Tables near the picture windows are coveted, and for good reason, as we discover when we notice that the Tomebamba river is just a short distance away. An adobe wall, industrial style lamps, vertical gardens, a mix of chairs, armchairs and sofas, plus a set of unique design details, all enhance the artistic creativity that sparkles along the entire restaurant. Everything, from the flatware to the centerpiece flowerpots with small flower arrangements, combines perfectly, upsetting traditional decorative norms and creating a space that carries us away from routine reality. It´s a veritable oasis in Calle Larga Street. It has already been quite an experience, even before our first bite. Of course, in such a magical ambiance, our expectations regarding the food are quite high. After all, even though we usually seek charming places to eat, most people prefer to pay for the food rather than the décor. It´s time to check out the menu. Appetizers first: roasted octopus, sugar-coated prawns, salmon tartare, camembert fondue… Without even glancing at the main courses, we immediately wish to order all five appetizers! We quickly scan through the selections on the first page: seafood soup, white carrot cream, asparagus salad, crab salad…. Then the next page: hamburger, steak sandwich, focaccia of roasted vegetables, shrimp ceviche, potato soup (locro), fried pork (fritada), barbecued steak… Finally, the last page: salmon a la orange, deviled prawns, pork bondiola, chicken in black beer, leg of lamb… We skipped the dessert page because, in our minds, we had no extra room and, furthermore, because it would be a waste of time to look since, from the moment we walked in and gazed at the dessert counter, we instinctively knew what would be the crowning touch to end an extraordinary dinner. It was not an easy decision because we tend to want to sample everything. The best bet is always to ask the resident expert, the waiter. Service was outstanding, always somebody hovering close to our table, ready to advise us on each dish and to help us choose the best option given our personal tastes. Decision time! Several persons in our group and our choices were very well combined. We tasted the grilled octopus with yucca (cassava); salmon dressed with Greek yogurt and Dijon mustard; asparagus with eggs accompanied with a sabayon of virgin olive oil; roasted leg of lamb in its own juice with a potato and leeks casserole, sweet potatoes, chives, grilled lettuce. And the apple milhoja (thousand leaves pastry). We certainly made the right choice! And, judging by the satisfied looks on the faces of our neighbors, we believe everybody made the right choice, for the simple reason that in El Mercado you just can´t go wrong. Although the decor and atmosphere are surprisingly pleasant, El Mercado´s forte is its cuisine. It breaks through the usual standards and does so with striking success.