At Old Avenue Restaurant & Bakery, a trio of incredibly accomplished individuals are allowing Torontonians to experience a taste of home by way of traditional and upscale takes on Azerbaijani food.
Located in North York, the restaurant is spearheaded from the business end by Esther Mordecai, a single mother and social activist, who is quick to praise head chef Mahmud Allahverdiyev, who has been working tirelessly to turn his business dreams into a reality.
“I myself am a community advocate,” says Mordecai. “I always advocate for refugees and immigrants. With my best friend by my side, I thought it was a great thing to implement his ideas.”
The menu features an array of rare dishes that showcase the cuisine found in southern Caucasus and the surrounding areas within — a cuisine Mordecai says, only one restaurant was serving when she first immigrated to Toronto.
Shah Plov is one of Old Avenue’s most popular and accomplished dishes. Known as Azerbaijan’s national dish, it translates to “crown pilaf” and is made with basmati rice, dried fruits and chestnuts and a choice of beef or lamb. It’s then wrapped inside a flatbread called lavash.
The robust menu also features traditionally classic dishes like Georgian Khinkali ($25) a meat-filled dumpling made with lamb and beef; assorted pide ($17) and a number of items from the grill like rack of lamb ($36) and salmon ($33).
But it’s the Khachapuri that Mordecai feels is the underrated competitor in the race for the restaurant’s best dish. The traditional Georgian dish is a pie filled with mashed kidney, red beans, onion and cheese ($24) while the Khachapuri Megleskiy ($25) is filled with special cheese and even more cheese on top.
“We use three kinds of cheeses. I can’t even name all of them but it’s incredibly delicious,” she says.
Gulnar Aliyeva heads up Old Avenue’s bakery. On the restaurant’s website they espouse a “deep, spiritual love of bread,” which they say is “ubiquitous, fragrant and essential.”
Within the restaurant’s interior, is a slew of antique collectibles which belong to Mordecai and Allahverdiyev. There’s an array of vintage spoons, each with a unique story, a photo of Allahverdiyev’s mother, and then there’s Goldie, a porcelain doll that acts as the restaurant’s mascot.
Mordecai’s line of work is in the realm of social justice, so it was a no-brainer for her to employ a team of refugees and newcomers to Canada, including some from the Ukraine.
“We made a conscious decision to help marginalized people. When they come here, they’re barely getting financial assistance,” she said.” They get some help at the beginning, then they have to go find a job. Who’s going to hire them? I always felt like it was important to make a difference, and we will be able to help more the more we grow.”
Old Avenue Restaurant & Bakery is located at 1923C Avenue Road, and offers their entire menu for pick-up and in-restaurant dining.