Hunter's Vegan Eats

Bar Avelo's menu is a playground of plant-based alchemy

I climb a floral staircase to discover the mysterious plant-based speakeasy above fine-dining restaurant, Avelo, where I snack on unbelievably delicious vegan cheese and imbibe classic cocktails.

The ornate interior at Bar Avelo, a plant-based speakeasy

My eyebrows shoot up beyond a rogue bundle of curls dangling off my forehead when I find out about the opening of Bar Avelo. My excitement isn’t just because a meal at sister spot Avelo, the crown jewel of Awai Hospitality, has always seemed exclusive. (Reservations are hard to get at the mysterious vegan fine-dining restaurant, the menu is a surprise until arrival and the petite venue is a Victorian townhome tucked away on a residential street.)

It’s also not just because of the chef de cuisine, Fernando Anrango Wittingham's reputation as a wizard of fermentation, inventive vegetable preparation and imaginative presentation.

I’m ecstatic because 2023 has been a hard year for Toronto’s vegan restaurants. A slew of heartbreaking closures have bombarded my IG feed as of late (Parka, Revelstoke Cafe, Green Earth Vegan Cuisine and Awai’s own Osteria Du, to name a few). A new opening is a glimmer of hope for Toronto's vegan scene in an otherwise gloomy last 12 months.

The staircase climbing up to Bar Avelo

As soon as Bar Avelo opens to the public, I’m there. I scamper up the front steps and inside, where staff lead me up a stunning stairwell decorated with pastel floral art. A sharp right, and I'm there.

Bar Avelo: What’s the vibe?

I’m immediately taken aback by the architectural marvel that is Bar Avelo. The upper floor of the townhome has been completely transformed into an elegant cocktail bar. A curved white ceiling featuring intricate carvings stretches out over the entire space, meeting a glass-backed bar on one end and a moody blue curtain on the other.

The table and lush blue curtain at Bar Avelo

Relaxing acoustic tunes seep from the speakers, never surpassing conversation volume. Guests lounge on plush blue couches or sip cocktails on a row of padded bar stools. There’s a pervasive serenity here that’s unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced at a bar in the city.

Lead bartender David Boyd is a pop of energy in the otherwise calm environment.  Originally from southern California, Boyd switched from a career as a registered nurse to bartending and hospitality. He’s chock-full of stories, quips and jokes that he shares throughout the night, and has me chuckling every time he comes to the table.

Bar Avelo: What’s on the menu?

Unlike Avelo, which serves a pre-set five or eight courses, Bar Avelo offers a limited à la carte menu. It’s from the same kitchen team, though, so it all has the same refined and elevated flare.

A vegan charcuterie board at Bar Avelo

I opt for the vegan charcuterie board, which arrives promptly on a thick wooden plank. I’d already heard rumours about chef Wittingham’s plant-based cheese, and it doesn’t disappoint. I eagerly spread delicate vegan brie and creamy Roqueforti onto thin crackers, then crunch on fermented carrots, parsnips and beets, along with fruit, nuts, pickles and piquinho peppers.

The Roqueforti is phenomenal. It is — and I don’t say this lightly — indistinguishable from real aged cheese. I ask chef Wittingham about it, and he tells me it’s been a long journey to finding the perfect recipe. “It took a lot of trial and error,” he admits. “Now, we let the mould grow, reshaping the cheese to create distinct veins. After another round of growth, we age it for approximately three weeks.” I’m flabbergasted to learn this whole process spans two to three months.

Vegan crab cakes with sea pearl caviar at Bar Avelo

Wittingham’s zeal for pushing refined plant-based food to the limits doesn’t stop with the cheese. His lobster mane mushroom crab cakes are topped with delicate sea grapes, à la caviar. Skewers of lion’s mane and king oyster mushrooms, coated with aji panca adobo, don’t quite deliver the dose of spice I was hoping for, but their meaty texture quickly makes up for it.

Bar Avelo: What’s on the drink menu?

There’s a lengthy list of classic cocktails, drinks inspired by fan-favourite libations, a handful of sours and non-alcoholic options, all made vegan.

I find the Monte Casino, a little spirit-forward number with Lot 40 rye and benedictine, to be a highlight.

Four drinks on a table at Bar Avelo

When twists on tipples happen, they’re usually subtle and respectful. A French 75 is re-dubbed a French 51 and swaps gin for vodka, adds St-Germain liqueur and a peach and lavender simple syrup before it dons its prosecco top. The Jamaican mule gets tropical with Appleton rum and a bit of brightness from Cointreau. The Whisky Scratch is a cheeky play on a New York Sour, with maple syrup and red wine — and, of course, no eggs.

Bar Avelo is a more casual experience than its downstairs counterpart and offers a unique blend of serene vibes and bold plant-based cuisine. It’s also more affordable than a full meal at Avelo, so make your reservation — or, just pop in — now.

Dinner and drinks for two: about $110 before tax and tip.