We were invited to attend an exclusive preview reception on Wednesday evening, which was to include samples of some new menu items. What we received, however, was more than I ever expected – a slick eight course tasting menu with unlimited access to alcoholic beverages.
Purveyors of the now ubiquitous “casual upscale” form of dining (CCC just recently wrested the Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Award for “Best Casual Chain” from Earls), I know I was pretty impressed with my visit last summer to their Bentall 5 location in Vancouver. More than anything, I found the quality of the food to be leaps and bounds above their competition, so was eager to see if their standards would remain in place, transplanted in a new city.
Driving up to West Edmonton Mall on 88th Avenue, the restaurant is difficult to miss. Many of us wondered why Cactus Club chose to diverge from their competitors by choosing a location away from the always hoppin’ Bourbon Street, but it was clear from the exterior that they had much more control over the design this way. Unfortunately, the restaurant is only accessible from the outside, which may pose a problem for diners walking from the wall in more inclement weather, but for the moment, their ability to provide an outdoor patio will be very attractive to shoppers looking for a post-visit drink.
Cactus Club Cafe
Walking in, I was immediately greeted by staff, and told that we were free to explore the restaurant. The Director of Operations offered to give us a tour, and we happily accepted. It turns out the space was formerly occupied by an automotive repair shop, but you wouldn’t know it. If Kai Asian Grill cost $2 million to refurbish, we wondered how much Cactus Club spent.
I’m not sold on the combination of the medium wood paneling and red leather (I much preferred the sleek dark brown/black colour scheme of Bentall 5), but I get the feeling the designers tried to emulate a more “Western” feel. Mack liked the eye-catching glass wine case, while I was impressed with the art featured on the walls – three Andy Warhols and one Jean Michel Basquiat. The lighting fixtures were also a sight to see – our tablemate compared the “artichoke light” to an Outback Steakhouse Bloomin’ Onion, and the bocci chandelier was almost a waste having been placed in the bathroom corridor.
Restaurant interior (Warhol’s ‘truck’ on the wall)
A few members of Edmonton’s foodie community were also on hand to celebrate the launch, including the Journal’s Liane Faulder, and Isabelle of The Little Red Kitchen (watch for reports of the evening on their respective blogs). Of course, Rob Feenie was also present, and Mack pushed me to take a photo with him (I hope not to be remembered as the city blogger who posed for a photo).
With Chef Feenie
We shared a table with Brittney and Kimberley of iNews880, who helped make it a fun and festive evening. Even before we sat down, we were offered drinks by one of the nearly thirty servers on hand (throughout the night, plates and cutlery were distributed, drink orders were taken, and dishes cleared almost instantly – that kind of attentive service would be easy to get used to, but with a server to table ratio of 3:1 that night, it couldn’t be maintained). Our waitress said that a core team had been gathered together from established locations in order to adequately train the staff and ensure a smooth opening. It definitely speaks to the resources of a large chain to have such an efficient process in place.
Just before 7:30pm, the first dish arrived, a beef carpaccio served with five-herb crostini. The peppercorn-crusted tenderloin had been thinly sliced, and worked well with the dijon aioli, pickled shallots and shaved parmesan. I agreed with Britney – it was definitely a dish I wouldn’t order for myself, but I could see a plate being shared among a group.
Beef Carpaccio (lovely presentation with arugula)
The tuna tataki was next – seared albacore tuna on a bed of green papaya slaw,orange, avocado and pine nuts. We were a table of non-sushi eaters, so were thrown by the texture of the fish. I have to say I enjoyed the tangy yuzu vinaigrette used on the vegetables, however.
The plate of BBQ duck clubhouse sandwiches, a resounding favorite of Mack, Kimberley and I, was consumed in a flash. This is definitely a dish I would order on a return trip. The duck and prosciutto already elevated the sandwich, but combined with the sweet pecan fruit bread, was better than any sandwich I have tried in recent memory.
BBQ Duck Clubhouse
I had been looking forward to the butternut squash ravioli (the dish I had enjoyed in Vancouver), but perhaps it lost something when made for mass consumption. My serving also didn’t have enough amaretti cookie topping. It seems they also altered the dish somewhat for our branch, as it is served here with seared scallops.
Butternut Squash Ravioli
Rob Feenie’s signature rocket salad, consisting of organic arugula, vine ripened tomatoes, cucumber and a lemon caper dressing atop panko and parmesan-breaded chicken was one of my least favorite dishes. Not being a fan of capers, I found they overpowered the dish. Mack and Brittney found it all right though.
I was surprised to find the sake-soy marinated sablefish on the menu – delicate and flavourful, it was a dish I would expect to find not at a casual upscale restaurant, but at a more formal establishment. The fish was perfectly cooked, flaking under my spoon, and accompanied with a warming base of dashi broth (similar to miso soup), was the most impressive course that night.
Sake-Soy Marinated Sablefish
The penultimate course provided us with samples of their braised beef short rib and peppercorn sirloin. The steak had a punchy peppercorn crust, and had been cooked to a nice medium rare, but was a fairly run-of-the-mill dish. The braised short rib, however, was meltingly tender, and the celeriac puree provided a smooth finish.
Peppercorn Sirloin and Braised Beef Short Rib
Dessert was a pat of their chocolate peanut butter crunch bar. Kimberley and I lucked out, as our companions are allergic to peanuts, so we both got to indulge in two servings of rich dark chocolate with a crunchy finish. A spoonful of crushed peanuts on top would have made the dish even better for me.
Chocolate Peanut Butter Crunch Bar
Just before we left, we even received a goody bag to take home, containing a bottle of wine, a Cactus Club gift card, and (hurrah for me), a copy of their lunch and dinner menus.
Thanks to the staff of Cactus Club for a great evening – they definitely know how to throw a good party, and ensure their guests feel well taken care of. Based on tonight’s experience, I know I will be back. Cactus Club opens to the public on Thursday, April 23 at 4pm.
Mack’s photoset is here.
Cactus Club Cafe
1946, 8882-170 Street