SANTÃ GLUTEN-FREE CAFÃ
Address: 2630A Quadra St.
Hours: Open Mon - Sat 8 a.m. - 6 p.m.; Sun 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Major credit cards and Interac accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
I was born with a cast-iron stomach. For most of my life, I have been able to eat whatever I like without worrying about it. My friend Sara is not so fortunate. She is one of millions of people who live with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that attacks the small intestine.
Celiacs must avoid gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, semolina, farina, bulgur, durum, kamut, kasha, spelt and triticale. This means a lot more than being wary of baked goods, as gluten is also commonly found in many unexpected sources.
The caramel colour in your wheat-free cookie might be barley malt. The chicken breasts in your freezer might be coated with modified food starch. Cheese spreads, sour cream, soy sauce, mustard may all contain gluten.
For someone with celiac disease, going out to a restaurant is a bit like walking a minefield. Not only are many people unaware of the extent to which gluten is present in food stuffs, but cross-contamination is a real risk, and anyone with celiac disease will tell you that even trace amounts of gluten can have an impact.
When Sara and her husband went to one of Victoria's five-star hotels for dinner, after she explained her allergy to the server, her gluten-free dessert arrived with a biscotti inserted in the centre of it. The thought that this could have happened behind the scenes, and been removed before she saw it was enough to convince my friend that dining out was a risky activity she simply wasn't interested in pursuing anymore.
At least until she read that SantÃ© Gluten-Free CafÃ© had opened in Quadra Village this spring. Bright, spotlessly clean, this venture is the dream of Hanna and Boris Kofman, both celiacs who, like Sara, had practically given up eating in restaurants. Folks with dairy allergies will be pleased to know that many items here can also be tailored for their needs.
The menu is brief, but offers a good range of options for breakfast and lunch. Choose from a cranberry and almond muffin for a light start to the day, or if you're starving, maybe organic corn flour waffles drizzled with strawberry reduction, chocolate syrup, fresh bananas and whipped cream might fit the bill.
Sara nibbled a toasted rice-flour bagel slathered with whipped cream and sliced tomato. I devoured an excellent wrap, filled with chicken, white beans, organic brown rice, roasted vegetables and cheese, served with a small salad with tamari ginger dressing. Dessert was a dense and flavourful lemon coconut loaf. While the food was delicious, the service was inconsistent. The young man who took our order was chatty and pleasant, but our food arrived courtesy of his laconic colleague without cutlery and the comment, "Salt and pepper and stuff are over there," certainly not what you expect in a room with one other occupied table when you have already tipped 20 per cent. I was thinking about a latte, but no one came by to ask if we wanted anything. Empty plates sat on our table until we left, while staff chatted with each other about everything from YouTube to their plans for that evening.
Still, I was intrigued enough to return. My chicken and pesto pizza was adequate, but not as good as the wrap I had eaten before, but a raspberry smoothie was so visually unappealing that I actually questioned whether it was raspberry when it arrived. It tasted chalky and remained on my table untouched after the first sip for over 20 minutes. I believe it would have remained there had the owner not come out of her office and asked what was wrong. Explaining that the Vega powder used to make it alters the colour and taste, she offered to remake it. When she checked back a few minutes later, I was halfway through it. With a smile, she advised me if anything in her restaurant was not delicious, she wants to know so she can replace it. Now that is the kind of attitude that wins customers, celiac or otherwise.
Apparently, there are some plans in the works to expand the menu and add a liquor licence. I would return for dinner, but would hope for some improvement in product knowledge and service on the part of the staff, particularly table service. We also felt that little touches such as betterquality napkins and salt and pepper shakers instead of the little packets currently used would go along way to matching the classy vibe the owner exudes. But in the meantime, this spot is a good choice for an affordable, light meal.
* Below bad
** Below average
**** Above average