The setting is a beautiful 125-year-old building with graceful wooden beams and tapia walls that have stories to tell.
Before the guests arrive, the room is smudged—physically and energetically—with sage or palo santo (holy wood), the latter an incense derived from the tree by the same name native to the Amazon and known for its antioxidant and healing powers.
Upon settling in for the opening of the evening’s ceremony noted by the gentle tinkling of a gold bell, a few drops of Agua de Florida (Florida Water, a sort of homage to the Fountain of Youth) are gently placed into your hands, and you’re asked to use it to cleanse the energy surrounding your body and mind.
This is only the beginning of the incredible dining experience at El Oasis Restaurant.
A Culinary Sanctuary
Located on Mariscal Lamar and Escultor Alabaca along the tranvía (streetcar) line in the El Centro district of Cuenca, Ecuador, El Oasis Restaurant cannot be explained with a mere checking off of the customary dining out boxes: taste, price, quality of service. The experience transcends far beyond that – and it needs to be more widely known.
The concept—what they call “Alta Cocina Consciente” (Higher Kitchen Consciousness)—is simple yet detailed; precise yet delicate – an epicurean haven where everything from beginning to end stems from mindfully assembled local, organic, ancestral Ecuadorian and Andean ingredients and products.
Whether a solo diner or with a significant other or acquaintances, everyone is immediately welcomed into this 12-person max communal space.
The intention and effort put into this is evident in the specially designed rectangular ceremonial style table wrapped around two sizeable built-in gas firepits. Waiting to embrace your body are wide, plush fabric covered chairs chosen after the proprietors personally sat in over 100 to select just the right ones comfortable enough for a 3- to 4-hour meal.
By the time you leave, it’s a mere footnote that you’ve been sitting that long.
The cozy yet appropriate distance between one another sparks instantly easy and engaging conversation; a feeling of unity and acceptance washing over you within minutes.
On the table at the beverage glass position at each seat, first names have been inscribed in colorful hues followed by a heart. Gently resting to the side on an intricately designed, hand stitched cloth napkin is a wooden block gracefully carved to appropriately fit the shape of each utensil.
The proprietors, Chef Mico EagleFeather, who designs the menu and the savory dishes and sauces, and Chef Annie Lulu, the baker, pastry chef, mixologist, and chocolatier, are committed to offering bold flavors focusing on health, sustainability, innovation, creativity, and mindful practices.
It would be accurate, yet recklessly insufficient, to simply say that the food “delivers.”
In a typical high-end dining establishment, you’d find 10 to 15 people working behind the scenes. At El Oasis, with the exception of a dishwasher who helps on service days, it is a three-person enterprise with Steve, Mico’s father, running the front of the house.
Dinners are an eight-dish production that take days to create and prep, the fruits of Mico and Annie’s labor beautifully executed and presented from Thursdays to Saturdays (private gatherings like family reunions, special celebrations, and the like are reserved for Wednesdays) at one 6 pm seating.
Although possessing all of the elements associated with a very formal affair, dining at El Oasis is like a relaxed dinner in someone's home. No need to dress up, or try to fit in. Just come as you are and be yourself but leave all talk of religion, politics, sexual orientation, vaccination, or the pandemic outside.
Bring Your Appetite; Leave Your Expectations at the Door
The menu here changes monthly, is not published beforehand, and other than swapping out the uniquely crafted alcoholic libations with non-alcoholic variations (there’s a welcome drink, aperitive, cocktail, hot drink, and digestive, and a bottle of certified vegan wine may be purchased if desired) there are no substitutions.
But there’s no need to worry about dietary restrictions. Everything is GMO, gluten, soy, and white sugar-free. Grain-free is about 95% of the time, depending on the menu, as well.
After each course is gently and lovingly set before you, Mico and Annie share the ingredients, thought process, and intention behind it—where the molecular fusions and notes will grace and titillate your palate.
The first time I visited, the first Amuse-Bouche (a French term meaning single, bite-sized hors d’œuvre) was an explosion of tomato and basil, basil foam, and macadamia in a fire-roasted tomato sphere.
“Oohing” and “Aahing” begins, more conversation ensues, and everyone around the table is wowed into bated breath and anticipation of the course to follow.
Needless to say, the second Amuse-Bouche does not disappoint – this one a delicate yet audacious sweet canapé fashioned with dates, walnuts, and blueberries, lemon and mint cream, and candied beet. My tastebuds have never felt so alive! Even the flowers and microgreens adorning the plates and beverages are edible.
In divine timing, further gastronomic stimulation arrives with the first entrada (entrée) covered with an opaque dome that we remove with an “uno, dos, tres” in unison. Delighted gasps escape our mouths as the luscious scent of bourbon oak smoke gently wafts up toward those magnificent wooden beams overhead, our eyes focusing upon the visually striking smoked broccoli bisque fashioned with grilled oyster mushrooms, sweet fennel cream, and crispy white carrot. Whisps of smokiness gently rest upon the dish and palate.
The libations served between courses compliment and tie together the one before and after, heightening and engaging the senses in every drop.
“Chauchas aplastadas” (crushed beans) may sound like an odd name for the second entrada yet they were anything but—papa chaucha (a rich potato-like tuber) artfully combined with a caramelized and smoked chipotle cream cheeses, and a sweet mustard aioli.
During my second visit there was a variation on the table—a riddle at each seat. While waiting for the next course we swapped guesses at the answers (another intentional and gentle invitation to connect). But by this point we’ve shared so much more—global travels, life defining moments, hopes and plans for the future.
And now for the Plató Principal (the main dish) - Portobello Tenderloin. Let me just say that this was the pinnacle of food porn for me: glazed portobello mushrooms, blackberry demi-glace, crispy onion, chimichurri (a typical Latin American ingredient and table condiment made with red wine vinegar, parsley, oregano, minced garlic, and olive oil), and the El Oasis adaptation of a Waldorf salad.
Words could not do justice to the explosion of flavors this dish imparted. The sudden silence around the table spoke volumes.
Oh, did I not mention that all of this deliciousness is vegan? Yep, completely plant-based and free of animal products! Where a recipe calls for cheese or milk, Mico makes his own. A typically chicken stock-based sauce? An organic and healthy one is created in its stead.
But before you meat-eaters out there get ticked off and leave the page, you’d be surprised—indeed pleased—to learn that a whopping 90% of the diners here, a majority of whom are repeat customers, are carnivores. Some, they readily share, have never eaten an entire vegan meal in their life. Yet they leave fully sated, overjoyed, and wanting more.
We’re probably 3 hours into the evening and except for standing to use the restroom, no one seems to notice the time. In fact, without prompting, the cell phones only appear to snap pics of each course—from multiple angles—before it is gleefully consumed.
I feel like I’ve known some of my tablemates for months, if not years. Between both visits I made friends with a Swede, a Texan, an African American couple from Michigan, another from Chicago, a Cuencana (a Cuenca native), visitors from the town of Vilcabamba (about 4 hours away), two global adventurers who spent several years in México, and a pair of intrepid travelers passing through Ecuador in search of spiritual healing.
Our backgrounds couldn’t have been more different, yet in many ways run along parallel lines. Its true when they say that regardless of where you’re from in the world, we’re more alike than we are different.
Most of the El Oasis customers are foodies who plan their trips around culinary adventures. Some are visiting, hear about the restaurant, and make a reservation (plan to do so at least two weeks in advance), others arrive by land, and still others book a reservation for a Friday night, fly into Cuenca, participate in the fantastic experience, spend a few more days here to enjoy the city, then fly out.
The Lavaboca (Palate cleanser) is this particular night is called “Locura de Mango” - Mango Madness, an apt description for how crazy delicious it is! This is a rapture of mango puree, borojo (a head-shaped fruit from the rainforest) and raspberry sauce, and mixed earth berries.