Surya Café is a vegan and gluten-free sanctuary

Meet Lauren Montelbano, chef of new Fitchburg café

Lauren Montelbano radiates wellbeing. The nutritionist and chef of Surya Cafe, located within Perennial Yoga Studio in Fitchburg, recently sat with me on the patio overlooking a prairie while I had lunch. It was after the rush and a good time for Montelbano to sit.

Open since April of this year, the cafe serves mostly vegan and gluten-free dishes. However, there is a duck egg quiche with a toothsome quinoa crust currently on the menu because the chef keeps (and loves) ducks at home. Seven days a week, Montelbano gets to interact with guests who are “eating my food,” she says, from an open kitchen, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner with snacks, juices and smoothies all day.

“So many people are here because they have dietary restrictions … they’ve got a story. Going out to eat should be a pleasure that everyone should have,” says Montelbano who is formerly the kitchen manager of The Green Owl, Madison’s vegan restaurant. Surya Café is a vegan and gluten-free sanctuary

Eating at Surya (meaning “sun” in Sanskrit, the primary liturgical language of Hinduism) is a pleasure when you know every ingredient is a benefit to your health. A week or so later I was still thinking about what I ate and how good it made me feel that I went back for more.

The menu is surprisingly large. There’s a spiced fruit and nut porridge of quinoa and oats simmered in a fragrantly spiced coconut milk, infused with ginger and topped with raisins, cashews, banana, cinnamon and maple syrup. The carrot cake smoothie is sweetened with dates and the familiar flavors of carrot and ginger, and it can be turned into a bowl with the addition of banana, shredded coconut, golden raisins and cinnamon.

Fresh-pressed juices offer anti-inflammatory ingredients including ginger, turmeric and lemon, along with lots of fresh fruits and veggies. Snacks like the samosa tartlets–spiced sweet potato and chickpea filling tucked inside a quinoa-cauliflower crust and topped with a spicy green curry sauce, cilantro and toasted cashews–will hold you over until lunch or dinner.

Dinner options, although hearty, won’t leave you filled with regret finishing your day with such a meal as the “Swimming Angels” (brown rice pilaf, seasonal vegetables, peanut sauce). As for lunch, the first time I went I enjoyed the sunflower beet burger–a bright magenta patty of beets, carrots, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, oats, chickpeas and garlic with gentle heat from a jalapeño pepper. Topped with caramelized onion and buttery avocado, the burger is held together by flax “eggs.”

And here we pause to consider what happens to ground flax seeds when water is added. A gelatinous texture similar to egg whites forms, which is a perfect binder that adds fiber and omegas, Montelbano explains.

The next time I returned for lunch, I ate the East Side salad of mixed greens, purple cabbage, crouton-like sweet and firm miso-orange tempeh, cucumber, carrot and seaweed with a creamy almond dressing. This is not a wimpy salad. An ice cream scoop-sized ball of nutty, ancient and hyper-healthy Forbidden black rice made this dish even more satisfying.

There is no gluten anywhere in her kitchen, so there are no cross-contamination issues. There is no white processed sugar either. Desserts are sweetened with dates, coconut sugar or local maple syrup. I just about devoured the gossamer-like rosemary, peach and matcha cheesecake made with cashews and coconut in a crust of finely chopped walnuts and dates.

Surya is more than a meal to satisfy those with dietary restrictions. It’s about “peace, serenity and healthy food,” says Montelbano. “I don’t want to preach vegan or mandate anybody’s food choices. But come here and I’ll give you a nourishing meal.”