As discussed in part one, Edmonton has a rich arts and culture scene, maybe surprising to some for a city of its middling size and northern isolation. This is amply demonstrated by the versatile and classy Citadel Theatre and in Edmonton’s long-standing main jazz club, the “Yardbird Suite.”
As its Charlie Parker-inspired name signifies, the club is operated by people who know and love their jazz, namely the Edmonton Jazz Society. Imagine that, a jazz club run collectively by people who actually like and understand jazz, with some public funding help; we should be so lucky in Toronto. I’ve played there many times over the years and it’s unique – it combines a concert space with a club feeling and has everything needed for the presentation of the music without being overly deluxe. A good-sized stage properly located, not one but two grand pianos, a good sound system, a house bass, drum kit and amplifiers. Why haven’t we thought of stuff like this in Hogtown?
Last summer I played at Yardbird during the jazz festival and noticed the place had been given a smart facelift, courtesy of an infusion of cash from, I believe, the Alberta Heritage Fund. A swank new entrance and foyer, with a photo gallery and nice new washrooms. Fortunately, they left the funky old, graffiti-covered band room intact; some things shouldn’t be changed and hey, at least there is a band room. It’s fun to sit back there and look at all the scrawled musings and images on the walls from musicians over the years, a kind of picaresque but irreplaceable history of tours and bands from the past, some familiar, some obscure.
Apart from such important venues, the city’s cultural diversity is reflected in its variety of quality bars and restaurants. John Alcorn and I flew to Edmonton together on Thursday, a day ahead of Reg Schwager and just minutes from our downtown hotel we found a terrific restaurant called “Tres Carnales” which had delicious and authentic Mexican cuisine at reasonable prices. The following day, we also found a very good wine store named “de Vine” (liquor sales in Alberta are privatized) and after the first concert, a nearby place called “Moriarty’s”, which had very good food in small dishes along the tapas line. It may not seem like much, but when you’re on the road in a city you don’t know, it’s a real comfort to find such good food on offer late in the evening without having to look too hard.
Good though these places were, they paled in comparison to a wine bar we were taken to called “BiBO”, located in the Old Strathcona/University section of town at 9919 89 Av., near 91 St. If you love wine and find yourself in Edmonton, this is the place to go, do not miss it. I don’t normally plug businesses on my blog, that’s not what it’s for. But to me, BiBO is not a business, but an experience, an oasis, a state of mind.
John Alcorn and I must thank a delightful woman with a very hip hair-do named Penny Ritco for introducing us to it. She is the Executive Director of the Citadel Theatre and it was her idea to book this trio doing two all-Cole Porter nights as a natural lead-in to their upcoming production of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives.” She’s known John a good while, has worked in theatre for many years and also revealed herself to be a keen and informed jazz fan. Maybe because ticket sales were going strong, but I suspect mostly because she’s a good and generous egg, Penny picked us up Thursday night and treated us to drinks at BiBO (it may be BiBo, I’m not sure.)
I’ve visited more than a few wine bars over the years, but this one is just the damnedest place, easily the tiniest and best one by far I’ve ever been to. Most of these grape bistros have an excellent selection of fine wine and a knowledgeable staff, but they can be snooty, pretentious, yuppie-ridden or nouveau-glitzy. Not this place. You open the door, pull aside a full-length opaque curtain to enter and the smelly world melts away, ceases to exist. The effect is a bit like Alice in Wonderland when she tumbles down the hole, only much more safe and pleasant, it feels like a cocoon.
It’s really small and narrow, but the effect is not cramped, but cozy. It might hold 35 people at the very most, if a few of them were anorexic. The actual bar itself is made of wood and seats about 10 on two long, high wooden benches, which encourages people who don’t know each other to sit together and maybe actually, you know, converse. The wall opposite the bar has some high stools and a ledge for resting glasses. There’s a back parlour area decorated with various fabrics and a little more brightly lit; the lighting in the bar area is subdued, mostly candles and lamps giving off a warm atmosphere.
It’s unpretentious yet elegant and I would describe the decor as Victorian-Surreal; there are quaint touches like coat hooks made from doll’s arms and around the walls are noted quotations about wine in antique script. Over the bar is a chalkboard detailing the ever-rotating selections, generally available by the glass (3 or 6 ounces) or by the bottle. There are some humorous touches here; champagnes and other sparkling wines are listed under “bubbles”, port and other fortified wine under “stickies.” There’s also a small note saying, “No, you can’t just have a taste.”
Best of all (aside from the wine, which I’m coming to, patience) is the music played here. It’s really interesting, eclectic, a home-made playlist emanating from a laptop behind the bar hooked up to speakers, played at the perfect volume, allowing you to listen if you wish, or talk without having to raise your voice. It’s pure genius and this should be mandatory at all public establishments; I don’t know how many I’ve walked out of because I either hate the music, or it’s just too goddamn loud. I simply don’t understand how the management in so many joints miss this, but when I complain about it, I’m usually given rolled eyes and a cretinous answer delivered in that ironic, bored Starbucks tone – “Ahhh, like, the staff likes this music, man, it gives them more, like, energy, or whatever.” Oh, I get it, so the staff is paying the check. How’d you like to feel the energy of an electric cattle prod up your arse, you entitled prat?
All of the thoughtful and original character of BiBO can be credited to its proprietor Dianna Funnell, a lovely woman who acts as bartender, sommelier, hostess, glass-washer, DJ; you name it, she does it. Penny is a regular here and Dianna was very welcoming to John and me; her voice and features put me in mind a little of the actress Carol Kane, though Dianna is younger and taller. She’s worked in the wine business all her life and knows it like the back of her hand, is brilliant at presenting wine and being able to find a particular one by only a scant description. BiBO only serves high-end stuff, but she’s refreshingly unsnobby about this, not much of an “I detect notes of chocolate” type, as she put it to me. To her, wine is a beautiful thing to be drunk and enjoyed with people, not fussed over or detailed to death. And if a wine tastes great to someone, then it’s great, end of story.
She got right down to it, asking John and me what we liked and both of us answered “red and big”, which seemed to please her. Out came a bottle, some small carafes and nice big glasses you can really get your beak into. She started us off with a Sonoma Zinfandel, without inundating us with details of maker or vintage, simply saying “I think you’ll like this one.” California Zin is one of my favourite types of wine, but this was by far the best one I’ve had, big, round and layered. Man, it was good.
The relaxing quality of the place made our long travel day just fade away. Penny, Alcorn and I were having a great time talking and the wine was so rich we drank slowly, took our time with it. Inevitably though, our glasses reached a dangerous low and Dianna was at the ready with a beckoning, ‘hand mama your glass” gesture. This time out of the beakers it was a Bordeaux blend from a winery in the Okanagan Valley – she mentioned the name but I forget it – I’m pretty good with baseball names, but hopeless with wine names. I hadn’t tried an Okanagan wine yet, they’re hard to find in Toronto and very expensive, so it was nice to sample one without having to buy a whole bottle.
I’m not exactly Robert Parker so this doesn’t generally happen, but it was several minutes before I could even try tasting this wine because I couldn’t stop sniffing it. The nose was just spectacular; cinnamon, cedar and God knows what else, it was exquisite. I was beginning to feel like Jim Vivian (a noted Toronto bassist, great person and wine maniac.) Eventually I snapped out of it, dove in and was not disappointed, it was lovely and complex as Dianna had promised.
Penny was driving so she cut herself off at two glasses, but encouraged John and I to try a third and we were only too happy to oblige. I was wondering how Dianna would top these two fabulous wines, but she was again ready, with a Syrah from the Dobbes Family Winery in Oregon. I’d heard of the cult-status vineyard so I knew this one would be marvellous and it really was. Deep, chewy, almost like food. It was likely the best of the lot, but they were all great, so who cares?
The medley of these wines built like a symphony of flavour, but at least superficially, the order of them to me seemed counterintuitive. If the idea was to go from big to bigger to biggest, I would have generally thought Syrah to Bordeaux to Zinfandel, or maybe Syrah to Zin to Bordeaux. But with these particular wines the sequence was perfect, each was enhanced by the following one and vice versa.
This made me think of Duke Ellington’s famous arrangement of the horn trio playing the melody of his “Mood Indigo.” Because he knew the specific players involved so well, Duke achieved a very special colour by putting Barney Bigard’s clarinet on the bottom, Arthur Whetsol’s trumpet in the middle and Tricky Sam Nanton’s trombone on top. Anyone else would have gone trumpet-clarinet-trombone top to bottom and I now think of Dianna Funnell as the Duke Ellington of wine. “Duchess Funnell and Her Vineyard Orchestra.”
Aside from some evenings of playing music, this was as satisfying a time as I’ve had in public in a long while, I left BiBO replete. It took a minute to put my finger on it, but between the wine, company and atmosphere, I was feeling…..happy. Yeah, that’s it, happy.
Penny Ritco insisted we return to the scene of the crime after our Saturday show, and this visit was only enhanced by the addition of Reg (even though he doesn’t drink) and Penny’s husband Brian Dooley, a fine actor and a really nice guy. Brian arrived ahead of us and kept some spots open at the bar and this time the dimension of food was added, from BiBO’s sister restaurant “Culina”, just two doors away. We shared a plate of cured meats, Dijon, three cheeses, Italian bread and a mix of candied pecans, dates and dried cherries. Penny insisted we follow this with an order of bacon-wrapped dates – it was getting decadent out – oh darn.
Naturally the wine was flowing with all this and I recall having another glass of the Dobbes, a really good Italian Merlot (who knew?) and Dianna insisted we try a glass of what she called “the magic wine.” It’s from a small French vineyard and made with techniques she described as “beyond organic.” It was really unique, dark and murky and she said it has been known to make people have wild dreams. With all I had to drink that night, I’ll never know.
Dianna told a really funny story about opening a bottle earlier that evening for some customers and instead of giving them the tasting sample, she swigged it herself – “Oops, you were supposed to try that, sorry.” I told my favourite wine story about trombonist Ian McDougall, who joined the Opimian Society in Toronto and ordered 12 cases of good French wine through them. One day years later some musicians were rehearsing at his house and during a break Ian was opening some mail. He rushed downstairs and returned with a bottle of the French wine, saying excitedly, “Fellas, I just got notice from the Society that this is ready to be opened!” Rob McConnell frowned and pointed out that Ian had been serving this wine at his place for some time. “Yeah, I know” said Ian, “It’s my last bottle.”
The capper to all this bonhomie came when Brian decided we needed one more bottle and ordered a Ribero Del Duero named Emilio something or other, which Dianna said she’d been saving for us. I love the wine from this region of Spain and while I’ll allow that by this point things were growing a little dim and fuzzy, this was really exceptional, maybe my favourite of all the ones I’d tried. I didn’t want to even contemplate what the tab would amount to, but Alcorn told me he tried to kick in for some of it and was waved aside by Penny. All I can say is, thank you for your amazing generosity Penny and I only hope maybe the Citadel will reimburse you and when you’re next in Toronto, the night is on us. Speaking of which, Dianna Funnell is planning to return to Toronto and open a wine bar on Queen St. E., maybe with Penny as a partner. This is indeed good news, though not for my pocketbook. Oh well, not so easy come, easy go.
So there we were, in a city often characterized as a cowboy town, a frozen outpost, a northern wasteland. And yet, the trio had just played two evenings there featuring some of the greatest songs ever written, in the best room we’ve ever played, sold out. And now we were enjoying the very best that our culture can offer anywhere – great wine, food, company, music, stories and laughter – all enhanced by the wonderful atmosphere created by Dianna Funnell. Civilization doesn’t get any better than this and life should be so good more often.
Wine, friends, food, and song – what else do you need? Oh yeah, maybe sleep – I’m workin’ on it. But first, maybe a nice glass of Zin.
© 2013, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.