Escaping to Clementine

by Chris Berger

An Edmontonian could be forgiven for bypassing 120th and Jasper without a second thought. The Pearl, while a towering new monolith of luxury on the evolving cityscape, wouldn’t seem at first to have much to drop in for.  And this obscurity hides a new Edmontonian gem in the best possible way.

Clementine, the newest addition to the local food and drink scene, has resurrected the upscale craft cocktail hideaway from bygone times. And unless you’re plugged in to the art of fine mixology and its faithful practitioners, chances are you wouldn’t know it was gone to begin with, which in itself is a shame.

If there’s one thing about Edmonton’s epicurean community though, it’s that culinary appreciation is gaining momentum, and where there is good food, there simply must, in a civilized society, be good drink. We may not have known we lacked it, but if we continue investing in places like Clementine in our neighbourhoods, it’s a shortcoming we won’t soon stand for again.

Stepping into this cozy 36-seat space is like stepping back into the 1920s.  Like its name, it feels both familiar yet exotic. From outside, drawn curtains, dark windows, and the lack of conspicuous signage veil the place from its otherwise bustling Jasper Ave locale.  Through the door, the tightly turning entryway shepherds newcomers into an intimate room – a parlour, really – defined by rich wood and distressed, yet intricate, metalwork.

In front of a towering and impeccably stocked bar sits our host and architecturally-inclined cocktail enthusiast, Andrew Borley.  One of the brains behind Woodwork on 100th Street, Clementine is his second project in the city.  And there really is no better word for it than “project” – everything about the space and what goes on within it comes from the collaboration of local artists, craftsmen, cooks, and bartenders. Rob Williams handled the metalwork; Beyond Wood, the staining; River City Tile, the tilework; Dessart Studio, the sign painting and gilding; Shane Hauser, the photography; and Land Faculty, the design. Bringing his training in architecture to bear on his creation, Andrew himself conceptualized the look of the interior, bringing to life his vision of a classic train car-like setting accentuated by curving wood. It’s a group inspired by the old school but propelled by innovative ideas for the future, and a true marriage of design and hospitality.

Speaking of hospitality, it’s fitting that Andrew and his colleagues drew heavily on their jaunts through New Orleans when conceptualizing Clementine, with a liberal infusion of the Savoy Hotel in London.  There’s marble in the bathroom, and an audio tape of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility reading melodically; the central space is somewhere I could be very comfortable with a pipe, leather book in hand, sport coat draped over my chair. Faulkner himself wouldn’t look out of place.

This tightly woven theme permeates the atmosphere, and it’s to the great credit of Andrew and his colleagues, Jordan Clemens and Evan Watson, that they’ve managed to tie their disparate backgrounds into such a cohesive vision.  Andrew has his background in architectural design in Winnipeg; Jordan studied neuroscience; and Evan is a sociologist. Head chef Roger hails from the prestigious kitchens of France and Belgium. (And veteran Edmonton diners may recognize Roger and Evan from their stints at Three Boars in Garneau).

One thing they all have in common is an uncompromising commitment to excellence in what they do, and this informs everything about what Clementine is. For instance, it speaks volumes that, despite constant lineups for a seat inside, they dismiss the idea of expanding the space – they would much rather maintain the intimate atmosphere. They don’t advertise, lest it dilute the organic crowd of patrons. And they don’t have coasters yet: they haven’t found the right material that would complement the look of the place. In sum, these are people of vision realizing a long-held passion, and if the customers follow suit (and they certainly are), then so much the better.

The self-taught bunch got started doing cocktail pop-ups together as the Volstead Act, and you can still find them taking over the bar at venues from Edmonton to Calgary.  But it is what this group of wanderers has accomplished in establishing a homey, refined neighbourhood gathering place that should cause Edmontonians to pay attention.

The neighbourhood cocktail lounge isn’t something you see much of these days, at least not in this city. And while our food scene is undoubtedly undergoing some exciting and unprecedented changes – which can only be a good thing – cocktails have not tended to keep up, it seems.  If you can get good food down the street, featuring ingredients from local vendors, prepared by passionate local people, it’s only natural that we should want our drinks to follow suit.  Edmonton’s been making great strides in the former area, but the latter has lagged – that is, until Clementine recognized a void and undertook to fill it.

Andrew tells me he envisions Clementine as a spot that you wouldn’t be aware of unless you actively sought it out. A Whyte Ave joint this ain’t, and you won’t find pub crawlers here.  It’s a place people can dress up a bit and drop by after work or after dinner in nearby Oliver, order a hand crafted beverage, and some delicious shareable plates, many of which emphasize a local connection of some sort.

Chatting with Andrew, we order a sampling of dishes: vegetable escalivar (a Catalan-inspired dish of eggplant and carrots), fall-off-the-bone jamboneau, and crispy shrimp with bok choy. All are presented in perfect form for sharing amongst ourselves, and are a testament to Roger’s finely tuned skills in the venue’s tiny kitchen.

The food is, in a worimg_5494d, fantastic. But considering we’re in a cocktail-focused establishment, we’d be remiss not to imbibe a little. On Andrew’s recommendation, I try the “Indigo,” a mezcal-centric concoction that serves as a great reminder that tequila is not the final word on agave-derived spirits. The smoky nose and crisp, moderately sweet palate go perfectly with the pork. Our Editor-in-Chief Zosia opts for the “Pomme,” and my fiancée and photographer for the evening, Brigjilda, gets adventurous with a selection off Clementine’s dedicated absinthe menu. Surely this is a first in Edmonton, and yes, it’s served properly: water poured slowly over ice and sugar until it turns the potent, surprisingly silky beverage milky white. As Andrew puts it, absinthe is one of those things that’s gained an undeserved stigma in the past, but they’re trying to dispel this taboo, one customer at a time. Ever the innovators, they’re even mulling the idea of distilling their own product using local wormwood.

A person could wax poetic ad infinitum about how this place makes patrons feel: the elevated sophistication of the wood and metal, the sharply dressed bar staff, the attentive service of the leaders themselves as they interact one-on-one with their guests.  And that is indeed the point of the place – the dedication to bringing back some of the romance and idealism of the pre-ironic, pre-jaded gathering places of yesteryear where thinkers, poets, and all-around community folks from around the corner can come together in good company.

Before we finish, I have to ask Andrew: what is Clementine for you? He says: it’s a classic, a refined, but also a take-it-as-you-will kind of place. In that spirit, it’s a place to seek out, and once you do, in which to slow down, strike up a conversation, and be merry.  The 1920s have never been so present, and Edmontonians are lucky for it.

Photography courtesy of Brigjilda Gera.

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