A Well-Oiled Machine: Cactus Club Cafe

After running some errands in the west end, Mack and I converged on Cactus Club Cafe for dinner, spurned on somewhat by gift cards we had on hand. Our first trip since being pampered at their VIP opening, we were ready to see what the restaurant offered on a day-to-day basis.

I was happy to see that the patio was open, but as both the dining room and outdoor seating required at least a fifteen minute wait, we elected instead to wander into the half-full lounge. About a half hour later, the lounge was packed, so we were happy to arrive when we did.

The bellini was calling my name that day, and as I found at the opening, it was refreshing yet deceivingly potent. On a more elegant occasion, I would have ordered the sablefish, but I felt like fries and a sandwich that day. I was eager to sample a full-size version of their BBQ duck clubhouse ($17), which had been my favourite item that night in April. Mack decided on their aptly named The Burger ($14), which also seemed fitting for the lounge setting. As Mack was feeling a bit puckish, we also sprung for the smoked cheddar spinach dip ($11.25) to start.

Bellini

Service was brisk throughout our stay; Cactus Club was rolling like a well-oiled machine. Our appetizer arrived in good time, hot and perfectly cheesy. I typically don’t seek out spinach dips, but this version, packed with grilled chicken, fresh tomatoes, parmesan and mozzarella, took the edge off the sour cream.

Smoked Cheddar Spinach Dip

My duck clubhouse arrived looking rather small, but once I started to devour the sandwich, I realized its richness more than made up for size. It was a bit messy to eat, but the layers of carved duck, pan-fried chicken, and crisped pancetta, sandwiched between pecan fruit bread, were worth it. The fries were hot and crispy, but nothing special.

BBQ Duck Clubhouse

Mack’s burger was even more of a task to eat – the pool of liquid at the bottom of his plate grew to a formidable size by the end. He liked it – a juicy, tender patty, coupled with classic toppings of aged cheddar, sautéed mushrooms, and bacon.

The Burger

As WEM restaurants go, Cactus Club is my new go-to eatery after a day of shopping. I’m just not sure I’d go out of my way to eat there, knowing that a crowd and a car jam would be waiting for me.

Cactus Club Cafe
1946, 8882 170 Street NW
(780) 489-1002

VIP Treatment: Cactus Club Cafe

After my one-on-one with Rob Feenie back in February, I was looking forward to the spring opening of the Edmonton flagship Cactus Club Cafe in West Edmonton Mall. Turns out, it was worth the wait.

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

Patio

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.

Lounge Interior

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)

Artichoke Light

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)

My crostini

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.

Tuna Tataki

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.

Rocket Salad

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

One-on-One with Chef Rob Feenie

Thanks to the Communications department at NAIT (and particularly to Diane Begin), I had the opportunity to sit down with Chef Rob Feenie last week during his whirlwind three days as the NAIT Culinary School of Hospitality’s first ever Chef in Residence. He will be back in the spring to open an Edmonton branch of Cactus Club Cafe in West Edmonton Mall around April 24.

I arrived about an hour and a half prior to our scheduled interview time, and was able to watch Chef Feenie conduct a few cooking demonstrations with a group of pastry students. In between starting recipes for an apple galette, white chocolate creme brulee, and ice cream, he actively sought out questions from students. In my opinion, it was rather unfortunate that Chef Feenie wasn’t able to choose the recipes he would create, as he made it clear it had been a few years since he had made ice cream. The NAIT instructional team behind him was great, and ensured, as on well-oiled cooking shows, that he had the needed ingredients and tools behind him, as well as finished products ready to dole out.

Putting the galette together

Students

Most of the questions centered around his Iron Chef America win against Chef Morimoto, and Chef Feenie was more than happy to talk about his experience on the show. During his demo, however, he was clearly flustered, and continued to reference how much more stressful this was than his Iron Chef experience. Still, he was able to impart several nuggets of information to the rapt crowd in front of him – that the students must love cooking, the customer is always right, minimize wastage. Throughout the session as well, he mentioned the names of so many other chefs that it made my head spin – I hope the students knew who he was referring to.

Chef Feenie’s constant media circus

At the end of the demonstration, the students were given some apple galette and creme brulee to taste, and Chef Feenie made sure to point out the texture they were to look for. He also handed out $20 Cactus Club gift cards to all of the students, and offered to give any of them a tour of the kitchen if they were to drop by in April.

Handing out gift cards

As is standard for me, I recorded my interview with Chef Feenie. I thought about putting it together in a coherent article, but as the majority of my readers likely already know his backstory, I thought it better to let his words speak for themselves.

On competing with Edmonton’s chain-happy market:

“The effort that we put into Cactus the last few years has been great. If you look at our design – how our restaurants look, the food, the service, the vibe in our room, it’s not any one particular thing. In regards to how we see coming into this particular market, I know I don’t know Edmonton that well, but in regards to Cactus and what we do – we do what we do well, and people in Edmonton will be surprised and impressed. Our company is about giving a little bit of everything to everyone and creating a great experience. Don’t forget, the company has been around for over twenty years, and over the last twenty years there’s been a long time to think about who we are. We’re feeling really good about being here, and if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have come. We’re not coming with the sense of being overconfident, but we feel good about what we can offer.”

On the failure of Edmonton’s Cactus Club in the 90s:

“In that point in time, a lot happened really quickly. It’s a different thought process now. And the restaurants look completely different now. The restaurants we had ten, fifteen years ago – there’s no comparison. We’re hanging unbelievable artwork in our restaurants. Not just that – the decor looks different, it’s completely revamped in terms of where we were ten, fifteen years ago. A completely different look, completely different feel. For anyone who’s ever been [to the former Edmonton location], they will be shocked and will be in for a different treat.”

On the potential of sourcing ingredients locally:

“With us, when you look at the primary proteins – fish, meat – because of consistency, have to be sourced out through our big supplier. But having said that, yeah, for myself, obviously in our two Calgary locations, we sell a lot of meat. Here, we’ll have to wait and see and look at our sales. Richard [Jaffray, Cactus Club President and Founder] and I talked about this when I started – we’re definitely getting into a scenario where some of the stores may be promoting local product. Right now is obviously not the time of the year for produce [in Edmonton], but when the produce starts in the summer, I’ll be out checking out who’s there because it’s a big part of what I do and a big part of the people I work with in the test kitchen. For example, if there’s a tomato supplier in Edmonton that can supply me with tomatoes for a month, we might do something on the menu that will go on our feature sheet. It’s a big part of what we do and important for us.”

On food bloggers:

“The thing that I’ve loved about the evolution over the last few years of food and wine…something I was telling the students this morning or this afternoon – whether it’s an opinion or a comment about food – it’s subjective. Whether its bloggers or writers, everyone should understand that people have the right to their opinion and the right to talk. The importance of it is getting the voice out, and it’s the extended part of the media of any kind of city. Bloggers in some cases are just giving their two cents worth and sometimes you’ll have bloggers making comments that make more sense than some of the food writers. It’s important for everyone to have an opinion.” [And yes, Chef Feenie does read blogs, courtesy of a media company that supplies him with daily reports.]

On photography in restaurants:

“You’re not going to stop them. If you’re not going to stop them I don’t think you should worry about them. It doesn’t bother me. It’s one of those things you ask…but why, what are you going to do? Go home and copy it?”

On food trends:

“I don’t think anyone is going to look at their prices and downgrade their prices, but I think you are going to see people streamlining things and making menus that are a bit more approachable for people. I think you’re still going to see those high ticket items, but I think you’re not going to see as many of them – more mid-price range. It gets back to Cactus – this is what we do. We really offer a wide-range of products – I’d like to think that we are leading that.”

And an abridged Culinary Q & A –

What did you eat today?

“I ate here. Cioppino for lunch. Ice cream for dessert. Three pieces of my galette, which I shouldn’t have. Three little chunks. And tonight, we’re going to Hardware Grill.”

What do you never eat?

“Things that are moving before you put them in your mouth. There has been the odd things that I’ve had. I won’t be specific, but I eat what I’m familiar with, and what I’m not familiar with I try to avoid.”

Where have you dined out in Edmonton?

Sorrentino’s, which I thought was good; that was last time I was here. Hardware Grill tonight. I would imagine that between now and the end of April I will have gone to every single restaurant that I’ve been told to try out. I’ve been asking everyone to get an idea. I’ll definitely be getting to know the restaurants.”

Complete this sentence: In my fridge, you will always find:

“Wine. Mushrooms. Lettuces – romaine, red leaf, green leaf, iceberg – tomatoes, cucumbers. Free range eggs. We shop almost every day so we don’t keep a lot of stuff in there. That’s the bulk of what we keep, nothing overly exciting.”

What is your family’s favourite dish that you prepare?

“Carbonara and roast chicken.”

What is the one ingredient you cannot live without?

“Olive oil. Good for you – but only a tablespoon a day.”

My small photoset from the day is here. You can be sure that as soon as CCC opens, I’ll be there.